Often, we hear the word ‘trauma’ thrown around. Sometimes it is mentioned together with war and veterans, other times a pile up on the freeway, other times a violent crime. Trauma seems to group all of these experiences together. How does it do this? Are these the only events that can leave someone feeling traumatized? And most importantly, how to heal from trauma?
Understanding what trauma is and how it affects us as humans is the first step in managing and healing from a traumatic event. If you have experienced a traumatic event and are looking for assistance, know that you do not have to go through this alone. There is nothing wrong with you reaching out for support and assistance.
Trauma can affect anyone; it is not picky. To understand what trauma is we can look to the American Psychiatric Association and the DSM-V-TR for a good definition. Bringing it down to the very essence, trauma is any experience where your sense of safety is threatened to the point where you fear injury or even death. This could be direct, where you experience this event towards yourself. Or it could be indirect, where someone very close to you has experienced it and you have been exposed to the event in some way.
Basically, a traumatic event is one that threatens your existence and security. Once a traumatic event is experienced the brain goes into hyperarousal or survival mode. This is where the body and brain instinctually choose the best way to respond to the event to ensure you survive.
Many people are used to hearing about the ‘flight, flight, or freeze’ response. These are all survival techniques. There is another one to add to this list – fawn. What many people don’t realize is that these responses do not end when the event does. They linger on until you have processed the trauma.
These responses are all meant to protect you and keep you alive after a traumatic event, or through continuous traumatic events.
Traumatic experiences affect how our brain functions. There are three areas that are affected in particular.
When we experience trauma and we struggle to process it and have indications of post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, these three areas in our brain are struggling to return to functioning in the normal manner.
The amygdala remains activated and continuously tells our body we are in danger and so we are constantly in a state of survival. The hippocampus is unable to differentiate whether the traumatic memory is past or present and so it acts as if it is the present. This causes flashbacks and nightmares. When the amygdala is so activated then the prefrontal cortex shuts down and does not operate at full capacity. This makes it hard for you to calm yourself down and remind yourself it was just a memory of the event, and it is not happening currently.
Trauma is a complicated experience that you can heal from as you process the memory and regulate your body. Your brain will be able to return to its usual functioning.
Having experienced a trauma, especially in early childhood, can leave you predisposed or more at risk of struggling with future traumatic events. This is most likely due to the fact that you have not fully processed the previous trauma, nor have you built that initial resiliency.
When we are children, we do not always realize that we have experienced trauma, and we simply feel the effects of the trauma. This could lead to survival responses like fight, flight, freeze, or fawn to become ingrained into our personality. We operate in a constant survival state.
When we operate in a constant survival state, we are at risk for developing anxiety, depression, and other mental health difficulties. This makes it much harder to face and process any future trauma or challenge that comes our way.
However, it is not all dark and gloomy news, you can recover and process any trauma you have experienced – even if it was from childhood. There are many ways to help step out of the survival state and into living and thriving.
An important element of this process is to always remind yourself that you are currently safe and not alone. You do not have to go through this experience alone. It is a good idea to have at least one person who you can share your journey with. They can be there at the times that your prefrontal cortex is shut down and remind you that you are safe.
They can also share in the joys and victories you achieve as you go through your healing journey. Here are a few ways that you can use to support yourself through the journey.
Being active can help your body feel safe in the present moment. You can regain a sense of control when you exercise because you can set the exercise, and this helps you feel safe.
When you move, whether it is cardio, weightlifting, yoga, or dancing, you are using the body to regulate your mind. There is evidence that this assists in calming the nervous system, which includes the amygdala.
When you exercise you can also look at regulating your breath, which will help you as well. You can practice being mindful and only focus on the present moment and the current movements you are busy with. This helps the hippocampus anchor itself in the present.
After a traumatic event it can be tempting to close yourself off from other people because it feels safer. This can be counter intuitive because humans are social creatures and having support from other people can help regulate and contain you.
There is something called co-regulation. This is when someone else is calm and feeling good, when you interact with them your system responds to their calmness and uses it to imitate. Giving you a period of calm and safety.
You will need to find out whether being alone with a person or being in a group is more likely to make you feel safe and secure. Once you do, all these connections grow. Being alone through your healing journey can be hard. Having others with you helps you to carry the load when it feels too heavy to carry on your own.
You do not have to process the trauma alone; in fact, this can be incredibly hard. Having a safe space and a containing figure to be with you as you process can be a helpful element. Seeking out therapy for traumatic events is a positive manner to further your healing.
In a therapeutic setting you can assess your overall mental health and how much you feel that the trauma is impacting your functioning. When you understand the effect on your mental health, physical health, social interactions, and work life, you can develop a strategy to build resilience and help you move through the trauma and forward.
You do not necessarily have to go through the story of the traumatic event in therapy, although this is an option if you feel it will be helpful to you. There are other ways a therapist can help you. Some of these might involve Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
CBT looks at how your thoughts, behaviors, and emotions are all linked together. These strategies look specifically at bringing your prefrontal cortex online again. With the power of your prefrontal cortex going, it will be easier to regulate your amygdala and help your hippocampus to remain in the present.
A therapist may use a combination of strategies to help you. This combination will be tailored to suit you, your mental health, and your experiences. You have the right to let your therapist know if you are uncomfortable with anything they suggest. It is important that you feel safe and contained during this process. If something makes you uncomfortable or scared, please let your therapist know.
Our bodies hold a lot of our tension and emotional distress. We can use our bodies to disperse this tension and feel physically safe.
Part of our body is our senses. We can use them to help ground us in the present moment. The sense of smell is the most powerful sense because it is the one that we develop first. Finding a scent that calms or relaxes you, even one that makes you smile because you like it is a good choice. You can find a hand cream that smells like this to use, or an essential oil to put on your pillow, sleeve, or keep with you to smell when you are feeling overwhelmed.
You could use touch as well, what textures do you find comforting? Is it soft, silky, both, or something smooth and cool? When you know what you find comforting you can cut a small square of fabric with this texture and keep it in your pocket to feel when you are feeling unsafe.
These techniques help to bring you back to the present moment because your body can only exist in the present moment – unlike your brain which can travel between past and present and future. Our bodies help to anchor us when our brains are struggling to find the present.
We can also ground ourselves by becoming mindfully aware of our environment. Noticing what we can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste (if possible) helps to bring our mind back to the present.
Once we are back in the present, we can see that we are safe and the feelings we are having are related to our memory.
Remembering that this is a process, a journey is helpful. There is no sprint or quick fix when it comes to trauma. You will learn that there will be ups and downs and this is okay, this is normal. You are allowed to feel scared during the process, you will still have some nightmares, you may still experience the same difficulties every now and then.
You do not have to feel that this process must be perfect, it is your process, and you can accept and treasure it for what it is.
It is a tragedy to experience trauma, and it should not happen to us. If you needed to read this article, it has sadly happened to you. We are sorry this has happened. We want to remind you that you are not alone, and you can reach out to One Life Counselling and Coaching.
We will provide you with a safe space to process any traumas you have experienced and find your best way forward.