From abandonment to neglect to ridicule at a very young age—traumatic memories are shared and manifest in our behaviour, our reactions, and the way we see the world.
And it doesn’t serve anybody to be told that their trauma is “Not real” or that they “did not suffer sufficiently to experience trauma”. Indeed, all it does is create another layer of guilt and shame.
Before diving deeper into trauma and how it manifests, I want to encourage you to let go of the feeling that your experiences were insignificant or that you would not be eligible to feel vulnerable.
Because, firstly, it doesn’t empower you to tackle your experience, process them, and allow for post-traumatic growth if you deny that your feelings exist.
And secondly, I take a humanistic stance, and I am careful to compare people to one another. Our experiences are so different, so unique, so intricate. How could we compare another life’s journey with ours? My answer: We shouldn’t. And we don’t need to.
Trauma can be experienced by anybody for seemingly ‘minor’ reasons. And acceptance of this fact paves the path towards looking into the future. Instead of minimising the wrongs, or denying our feelings to experiences, it’s time to acknowledge and process.
Let’s tackle the trauma epidemic by acknowledging it exists.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is a psychological and physiological response to an overwhelming event or series of events that threaten a person’s physical or mental well-being.
It can result from experiences such as abuse, violence, accidents, natural disasters, or witnessing traumatic events.
Trauma can also occur from absent, violent or ridiculing parents in our childhood. Watch this video to understand how trauma in our youth is sometimes treated as an afterthought. Even though it affects us. In the way we process the world. As adults.
It is not about blaming our parents or our parents blaming their parents. No one is perfect, and everyone has their package to carry. Instead of blaming, we can realise that things in the past impact our current situations -and that there are alternatives to it.
How Trauma Affects Our Body
Trauma can have a significant impact on the human body. It impacts thoughts and emotions, causes muscle tension, and changes in our cardiac output.
During a traumatic event, the body’s stress response is activated, leading to physical changes. These changes are how the body prepares itself to respond to the perceived threat. Some common physical sensations experienced when someone undergoes trauma include:
- Increased Heart Rate: Trauma causes the cardiovascular system to increase heart rate and blood pressure. This prepares the body for action, such as fight or flight.
- Muscle Tension: Trauma can cause increased muscle tension, leading to sensations of tightness, stiffness, or pain in various parts of the body.
- Hypervigilance: Trauma heightens the senses and can lead to increased alertness and a hyper-awareness of potential environmental dangers. This state of hypervigilance can result in heightened sensitivity to sounds, sights, and other sensory stimuli.
- Numbness or Dissociation: Some people may feel emotionally or physically numb or dissociated during trauma. This can involve a feeling of detachment from oneself or the surroundings.
- Respiratory Changes: Traumatic experiences can disrupt breathing patterns, leading to rapid, shallow breathing or holding of breath. These changes are part of the body’s response to increase oxygen supply for immediate action.
Trauma can affect more than just emotions. It can also mess up how the body deals with stress. This can cause long-term problems with the heart, immune system, and other parts of the body. Research has found that trauma can make people more likely to have heart issues, immune disorders, gut issues, and other health concerns.
Long-Term Effects of Trauma
But Trauma doesn’t just impact our body and mind on the short term. Long-term effects of Trauma include:
- Emotional Dysregulation: Individuals may experience intense emotions that are difficult to manage, including anger, sadness, and anxiety. Emotional numbness or detachment is also common.
- Interpersonal Difficulties: Trust issues, difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships, and a tendency to isolate oneself can have long-term effects.
- Negative Self-Perception: Feelings of guilt, shame, and a distorted self-image are common. This can lead to a chronic sense of worthlessness.
- Dissociation: Episodes, where there is a disconnection between thoughts, identity, consciousness, and memory, may occur. This can manifest as ‘zoning out’ or even more severe forms of dissociation.
- Chronic Health Issues: Physical symptoms such as headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and sleep disturbances often accompany C-PTSD. There is also an increased risk of developing other mental health conditions like depression and anxiety disorders.
- Impaired Cognitive Function: Difficulty in concentration, planning, and completing tasks can have long-term cognitive effects.
- Avoidance Behaviour: Individuals may go to great lengths to avoid situations or people that remind them of their traumatic experiences, which can limit their day-to-day functioning.
- Hyper-arousal: Constantly being on ‘high alert’ for danger, even in safe environments, can lead to exhaustion and anxiety.
- Attachment Issues: Problems with attachment can manifest, making it difficult to form secure and healthy relationships.
- Substance Abuse: There is an increased likelihood of engaging in risky behaviours, including substance abuse, as a coping mechanism.
- Suicidal Ideation: Thoughts of suicide or self-harm can be more prevalent in individuals with C-PTSD.
Interventions for trauma aim to help process and integrate traumatic experiences, reduce distressing symptoms, and restore a sense of safety and well-being. It is important to accept the fact that we are human beings, and as such, we can be vulnerable. Instead of thinking that we are “broken”, or that something must be wrong with us, we are human beings, having a human reaction that differentiates us from a wall, a stone, or another inanimate source.
Therapists can help guide us through the darkness and empower us to heal old wounds. And more than that, they can help us move forward. Fostering a resilient mindset that builds on our strengths can lead to true and lasting change. In psychology, we call it “post-traumatic growth”.
There are many approaches to tackle Trauma, including trauma-focused therapy, mindfulness-based interventions and schema therapy. Schema therapy may be especially helpful for people who experienced trauma in their childhood, as it focuses on understanding how our childhood influences our reactions to certain stimuli in adulthood.
Trauma can happen at any time in life. And it can happen to anyone.
The Diathesis-Stress Model helps explain why some people may be more likely to have symptoms related to trauma. This model suggests that trauma-related disorders come from both genetics and stress from the environment or society. It could be summarised as “You are having a normal reaction to an abnormal circumstance”.
Family history of mental health issues, previous trauma, not having enough support from others, or many other influences can make someone more likely to be affected by trauma.
So instead of minimising or denying feelings, I encourage you to acknowledge them and look forward. Foster resilience, radical acceptance, understanding, and growth.
Books Suggestions? But of Course!
- “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk
- “Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror” by Judith Herman
- “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma” by Peter A. Levine
- “Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy” by Pat Ogden
- “The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole” by Arielle Schwartz
- “Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body” by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper
- “Treating Trauma and Traumatic Grief in Children and Adolescents” by Judith A. Cohen, Anthony P. Mannarino, and Esther Deblinger
- “Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others” by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk
- “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving” by Pete Walker
- “The PTSD Workbook: Simple, Effective Techniques for Overcoming Traumatic Stress Symptoms” by Mary Beth Williams and Soili Poijula