As people, we can often find it challenging to associate ourselves with the word ‘trauma’. Understandably so.
When we think of trauma, we have ideas regarding what it can look like, largely informed by the media we consume. However, as you can likely guess, ideas informed via media consumption can be limiting and even incorrect.
Trauma is definitely not an all or nothing. Trauma can be described as an emotional, physiological and or physical response to a distressing event. Another way of describing trauma is anything that is too much, too little, too soon, or too late.
The experience of trauma is processed much like the experience of a physical injury; there is an event or a cause that leads to the trauma, and subsequent negative experiences that exacerbate it. Trauma can be perceived differently externally vs internally; what feels like trauma on the inside might not translate well to trauma on the outside. This is because we all have an idea of what we think trauma is. This is why people who have often experienced trauma of any kind; neglect or abuse, find that they are unaware this has even happened to them, because it does not meet the idea of what they might think trauma is.
Our most common understanding of trauma is one-off events; an injury inflicted by someone, witnessing or being victim to physical abuse, negative sexual experience, and the like; especially when these occur in childhood. However, emotional and psychological trauma can also be related to on-going stressors in our lives; living with a life-long illness, uneven relationships, bullying, living under socio-economic stress, neglect in the form of not having a consistent, reliable emotional support system, etc. Furthermore, trauma can also occur through generally overlooked experiences; surgeries, break ups, the unexpected passing of someone you love, and even humiliating or embarrassing experiences at school or in the workplace.
These dynamic ideas of traumatic experiences can help us see trauma for how it impacts the person, rather than how we think it should impact someone.
What does this mean for me?
Most of us would know if something traumatic were to happen to us. Some of us however, are likely to have no direct memories of our traumatic experiences, and are highly unlikely to recognise some thoughts and behaviours as resulting from surviving through traumatic experiences.
The most familiar symptom of trauma is the recollection of memories of traumatic events, often unwillingly. This occurs in the forms of flashbacks or nightmares. However, it isn’t the most common symptom people report in therapy.
The most common and visible symptom of trauma is anxiety, resulting from the body’s fight-or-flight response system being on “high alert”. Another common symptom is the feeling of being “out of body” or dissociating or being “spaced out”. These symptoms often appear to happen “without cause”, and may be coupled with poor recollection of the past. The list of psychological and physical symptoms of trauma far extends what I can fit in here; everything from lack of concentration to shock, disbelief, emotional numbness, and even guilt or shame.
This is not to say every negative experience is traumatic; it is to highlight that any negative experience; badly timed, poorly handled, with an inadequately supported healing process, has the potential to cause trauma to the mind and emotional state of the person.
What to do if you notice these feelings in yourself or a loved one.
Remember, what causes trauma looks different on everyone. If you feel that you have symptoms that are hard to account for or simply don’t make sense to you, it is a good time to reach out to trauma-informed psychologist. Beginning to understand your symptoms and what can trigger them is often “freeing” for people with traumatic pasts or experiences.
The best way to support someone you love through trauma is to be a stable, reliable person in their life and help them get access to a professional. Treatment and eventual healing of trauma is an experience that always starts with intentional engagement.