In this blog post I’m going to be looking at the concept of trauma – something which I’m studying at the moment not only because it’s touched me in my own life, as you’ll see here later, but also because trauma (especially unresolved/unprocessed trauma) affects both our minds and our bodies and can also end up affecting our relationships with others. So it’s an important topic to cover and it’s something I see and recognize on a daily basis with clients, friends, and those around me.
I’m going to take you through the definitions of trauma, the different types and their symptoms, how stress gets stuck in our bodies, and the impact this can have.
What do you think trauma is and how do you think people react when they have been traumatized?
In most cases, you’d say that trauma is related to an event that involves violence, violation of boundaries, or something similar – this is all true but is focused on the extreme end of the scale. Trauma can also be any time we feel overwhelmed and unable to change our situation – which includes stressful careers, toxic work/family environments and even finding our feet in a new situation like after the birth of a child or a move.
“An event that overwhelms the central nervous system and changes the way you remember and react. Something that happens to a nervous system and mind that we are incapable of assimilating/integrating”.
“Trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past, but also an imprint left by that experience on the mind, brain, and body. This imprint affects how a person continues to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only the process of thinking but the content and our very capacity to think” – Basel van der Kolk
Some elements of trauma to keep in mind:
- Trauma can happen any time we feel overwhelmed
- Trauma changes the way we remember and react – sometimes we forget really traumatic experiences, sometimes we know something bad happened but we can’t remember the details.
- Trauma can render us Incapable of assimilating/integrating – meaning we feel like we just can’t get over it, or it has a lasting effect on us mentally, emotionally, or physically.
- The thing with trauma is that it’s not actually about the actual event, but rather our emotional experience of the event – which will look different to every person.
- “Time heals all wounds” – is not true with trauma because it can get stuck in our bodies and without consciously dealing with it, we can carry it for a lifetime.
Sources of Trauma
There can be many things that cause trauma, from horrific events to more benign things that we aren’t able to initially pinpoint as being a cause for any trauma that may be stuck in our bodies. Trauma can be broadly categorized in 4 ways, I’ve listed these below with a few examples of each.
Time event or shock trauma
Such as an accident, injury, or a violent attack, especially if it was unexpected.
Continued or accumulated trauma
Such as living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, battling a life-threatening illness, or experiencing traumatic events that occur repeatedly, such as bullying, domestic violence, or childhood neglect. This can also be a stressful lifestyle – just living in this era is said to be a major cause of trauma because of all the political unrest, the need to earn more and more to keep the lifestyles we want, and the constant pressure to perform.
Often overlooked events that could also be traumatic
Such as surgery (especially in the first 3 years of life), the sudden death of someone close, the breakup of a significant relationship, or a humiliating or deeply disappointing experience, especially if someone was deliberately cruel. This category includes witnessing someone else’s trauma – like watching the effects of a natural disaster on the news or a particularly graphic documentary.
Developmental Trauma/Childhood Trauma
Growing up in an environment that was not responsive and lacks support for a child to manage life in general, results in developmental trauma, which includes abuse & neglect. This usually happens before we are fully able to comprehend, so under the age of 3 – and is very often forgotten or not remembered which is why it’s so hard to figure this type of trauma out.
Symptoms/Signs of Untreated Trauma
The human brain has several defense mechanisms that it uses to cope with trauma. Trauma, if left untreated, will begin to have effects not only physically and emotionally, but psychologically as well. Here are the symptoms and signs of untreated trauma to look out for:
Emotional & psychological Symptoms
- Shock, denial, or disbelief
- Confusion, difficulty concentrating
- Anger, irritability, mood swings
- Anxiety and fear
- Guilt, shame, self-blame
- Withdrawing from others
- Feeling sad or hopeless
- Feeling disconnected or numb
- Insomnia or nightmares
- Being startled easily
- Difficulty concentrating
- Racing heartbeat
- Edginess and agitation
- Aches and pains
- Muscle tension
Normally it takes us a couple of days to process a traumatic event, so broadly speaking, after an event, these symptoms are quite normal to have, but in some cases, the trauma gets stuck in our bodies. It’s this stuck, unprocessed trauma that can cause issues and is what people often refer to as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Symptoms of PTSD:
- Having trouble functioning at home or work
- Suffering from severe fear, anxiety, or depression
- Unable to form close, satisfying relationships
- Experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks
- Avoiding more and more anything that reminds you of the trauma
- Emotionally numb and disconnected from others
- Using alcohol or drugs to feel better
Sometimes we live with these symptoms for years before we are either diagnosed with PTSD or realize that we’re living with unprocessed trauma – and that it’s affecting our lives.
My own story
I have walked my own journey with trauma, and specifically, PTSD which I’d like to share as a way to ground this theory into reality.
I was mugged twice in the space of a couple of years when I was living in Cape Town, South Africa. I wasn’t physically hurt and on both occasions, I felt empowered enough to chase after the assailant, once I’d realized what had happened.
I had talk therapy after both instances, so I thought I had covered all my bases in terms of ‘getting over it’.
However, it was only when I was living in Switzerland – one of the safest places in the world, that I started wondering if something was still at play. My behavior was not aligned with my reality, I was experiencing real anxiety walking home alone at night, insisting on carrying pepper spray (which is illegal in the country). I had also experienced proper shut-down after having someone run up behind me – not to frighten me, they were just running past, but the physical reaction I had to it was so profound it was hard to ignore.
I thought that this was just something I now had to live with, because of my previous muggings, but the symptoms gradually got worse and were then compounded by a revelation in my relationship that shook me to the core and sent my symptoms to another level. I ended up feeling permanently unsafe, in my house, in my car, outside, and in life in general.
It was at this point that I realized my life was being restricted quite fundamentally and started looking into different ways to treat trauma. I settled on following a Somatic Experiencing route, which helped me release the trauma from my body to the point where the symptoms subsided altogether and I started feeling safe once again.
So how does trauma get ‘stuck’ in the body?
Trauma is a shock to the system, and when that shock is stored in the body instead of released, it can cause issues down the line.
It alters our central nervous system’s perception of risk and safety. It can produce physiological changes including the recalibration of the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormones, and alteration in the system that filters relevant from irrelevant information. Because of this effect, trauma survivors become hyper-vigilant to threat at the expense of spontaneously engaging.
Trauma is not in the actual event in the system or the body but in the inability of the nervous system to operate normally & to heal. In order to heal, we need to let the nervous system know that it can come out of survival and go into healing. There are different ways to do this.
It is essential for our brain and body to re-learn how to recognize and respond appropriately to danger. We are also able to come out of survival mode when we learn how to recover the capacity to experience safety, relaxation, and reciprocity. Another way to go into healing is by re-developing physical self-awareness or befriending the body by learning to approach inner experiences with “compassionate curiosity” and increase our body’s “window of tolerance.”
What can you do?
Healing from trauma takes time and looks different for everyone. But there are some ways that can help with the process.
Top-down approaches (meaning getting your ‘head around it’):
- Talking, (re)connecting with others and allowing ourselves to know and understand what is going on with us while processing memories of trauma.
- Taking medicine that shuts down inappropriate alarm responses or utilizing other technologies that change the way the brain organizes information.
Bottom-up approach (meaning through the body):
- Allowing the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage & collapse that results from trauma. Eg TRE, EMDR, TRE, yoga, mindfulness, Somatic Experiencing.
You can also find a lot of helpful insights and techniques by reading books such as:
- Peter Levine: Waking the Tiger
- Stephen Porges: The polyvagal theory
- Bessel van der Kolk: The body keeps score
- Gabor Mate: in search of Hungry Ghosts
Trauma is a large subject and requires more than one blog post to outline. I’ll continue to write about trauma here and integrate what I learn through Somatic Experiencing, in my coaching, and in my Yin yoga classes.
If you’d like to know more feel free to reach out!