What is trauma? Events that involve a sense of powerlessness, loss of control, or physical immobilization are deemed “traumatic”. This means that numerous events can be identified as trauma, including:
- Natural disasters
- Car accidents
- Serious illnesses
- Death of a loved one
- Various forms of abuse
The physical response
When we experience a traumatic event, our body’s respond by engaging in a stress response as a way to protect and defend ourselves against the trauma that is occurring. This is our “fight or flight” response and includes symptoms such as:
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Muscle tension
- Increased sweating
However, if the body cannot fight back or run away, it will enter into “freeze mode” This is when the body will begin to actively record the information that is present during the traumatic event. This means that our bodies are recording the things we see, hear, smell, taste and feel throughout the event.
People might avoid showing emotions following trauma, and they may feel like they need to be “strong”. This can cause traumatic symptoms to develop. These symptoms are “triggers” and can cause the person to experience nightmares, flashbacks, racing thoughts, and strong emotions of anger, guilt, sadness, fear, etc.
The mental response
After a traumatic event occurs, our minds begin to try and understand what happened. Our interpretation of what occurred is based on our development and attachment history with those close to us and our current support system. The mind develops a “narrative” in order to understand and cope with the emotions and sensations. It is common for people to begin to develop negative core beliefs about themselves. For example, people might begin to think they are not enough, not loveable, or not worthy.
This reinforces the “narrative”. After a traumatic event, our bodies store the emotions that were felt during the event. We will continue to hold onto the emotions of anger, sadness, fear, and guilt unless they are given the space to be felt. A traumatic event can also impact a person’s perceptions of their body and the bodies functioning ability in regards to heart rate and stomach or gut health. Relationships and sleep schedules can also be impacted. Many times, we try to cope with trauma with drugs, alcohol, food, sex, and other risk-taking behaviors as a way to numb the emotions and distract ourselves from what has occurred. In the moment, it may cause a sense of relief, however the true impact of the trauma is still apparent in our minds and bodies.
Validate your own trauma
Trauma creates change you don’t choose. Healing is about creating change you do choose.— Michelle Rosenthall
After experiencing a traumatic event, it is common to invalidate our experiences, especially when we compare them to others who have experienced similar events. I often hear people say, “My experience is not as bad as someone else’s experience, so I have no reason to feel this way.” This type of thinking can slow the healing process, because when we invalidate our own trauma, we’re essentially locking ourselves up with our own shame and throwing away the key. It’s important to consider that your trauma is your own. The way that it changes your thinking, how you feel emotionally, and what it does to your body is based on your genetics, upbringing, past trauma, and current levels of social support and resiliency. Playing the comparison game in an attempt to not allow yourself to process your hurt only serves to keep trauma in its place.
It can be difficult to process through trauma by yourself. If you are struggling with trauma, a trained clinician can help and provide you support.
There is no timestamp on trauma. There isn’t a formula that you can insert yourself into to get from horror to healed. Be patient. Take up space. Let your journey be yours.— Dawn Serra