Many people define trauma as an event or situation that happens to someone (active combat, physical or sexual assault, car accident, childhood abuse or neglect, etc.). After we have survived such an event in our life, we may develop conditions such as PTSD or depression that, though they present significant challenge for us, can start to be made sense of because we can make the connection. We may receive validation from others or even be able to offer compassion to ourselves, in part because we can to point to a “valid” reason why we struggle the way we do.
However, trauma is more accurately understood not as something that has happened to us, but something that occurs in our body. Essentially, trauma is the lingering effects in the body’s nervous system of an experience that it could not fully process and resolve at neurological level. This results in a variety of symptoms, both conscious and unconscious, in which our bodies and minds relive the overwhelming experiences in order to have them feel completed within us. This reliving of the past occurs only seldom as distinct images or flashbacks of events; more commonly it manifests as unconscious reactions (or triggers) that lead to ineffective and destructive patterns of thought and behavior.
More and more, trauma is being understood in two distinct categories: incidental trauma and complex trauma. Incidental trauma is experienced in a time limited way, such as a car accident, natural disaster, crime victimization, etc. We experience such incidental traumas for a limited amount of time and then they end. We are left to figure out what happened to us, why it happened to us, and often feel powerless to do anything to change the feelings of helplessness we are left with.
Complex trauma is experienced over a more sustained period of time, and with each time we experience it, we fear that things will never change, that there is nothing we can do to stop it from happening again. Childhood physical abuse and sexual abuse are prime examples of this, as are domestic violence, war, etc. Other examples include religious cults, emotional violence in an intimate relationship, and emotional neglect, being cut off, or abandoned by a parent or trusted care-giver.
Simply put, trauma is experienced when we feel that our life or well-being is threatened and there is nothing we can do to stop it. It does not matter whether in reality we can or cannot stop it; it is our perception of our ability to put an end to the threat that determines whether we will experience trauma. It is not what happened that determines whether we experienced trauma, but rather how capable we felt to adequately respond during and after the situation.
Many individuals who have lived with the sense that something was wrong with them are not able to see events or relationships in their past as being traumatic. They may have lived their whole lives believing they were defective or broken, and they seem to have no explanation as to why they have struggled the ways they have. For example, siblings within the same alcoholic family who grew up only a few years apart can enter their adult lives with very different outlooks. One can feel crippled with the unacknowledged effects oftrauma, while the others appear to function in life with relative ease. This is because, due to a variety of differences (age, gender, degree of sensitivity, coping skills, external resources or support), the latter did not internalize and store the same situation in the same way.
Traumatized reactions are many and diverse; rarely do two people cope with trauma the same way. However, if you have been traumatized, you may experience many of the following struggles:
- Anxiety and panic
- Anger and irritability
- Eating problems or disorders
- Self-destructive behavior
- Withdrawal and isolation
- Relationship problems
- Inability to trust others
- Sexual dysfunctions
- Body shame and body image distortions
- Sleep problems and disorders
- Obsessive and/or compulsive behaviors
- Suicidal thoughts and/or attempts
- Flashbacks and intruding thoughts/memories
- Seeing the world as bad and dangerous
- “Black and White” thinking
- Hyper-vigilance (always being on the ‘look out’)
- Stress-related illness
- Spiritual disconnection
- Dissociation (mentally and emotionally removing yourself from an unwanted situation; ‘spacing out’)
- Addictions (alcohol, drugs, food and exercise, sex, work, relationships, video games, shopping)
- Being stuck in the role of victim (passivity, over-willingness to accept/place blame)
Working with a therapist trained to work with trauma can itself be a scary process. You may wonder whether you will have to recall the details of your history and what will come up for you. Many are afraid that when they begin to deal with trauma, they will be overwhelmed by what comes out and that it will drive them insane. Others are terrified that if they allow themselves to feel what has been shoved away for so long, that they won’t be able to put it away as needed in order to function in their daily life.
Our work with trauma at Connexus starts first and foremost to help you develop the skills you need to create a sense of safety within your body and your mind. We do not ask you to jump right in to telling the story of your trauma, because this would be reliving it in much the same ways as you experienced it at the time it was occurring. Because trauma is a powerful and threatening energy housed in the body itself, we help you to understand the nature of it as a physical entity with mental and emotional consequences, giving you the tools you need to complete the physical processes necessary to eliminate.
We work with you to produce feelings of success and empowerment in your life, and help integrate those feelings into your sense of worth within yourself. With each stage of trauma recovery and each little success, we step back and evaluate what it’s like to experience yourself in different ways. If there are topics or ways of expressing yourself you have struggled with, we address them one at a time and at your pace. The strategy is of dipping your toe into the unknown, scary waters and discovering you can pull it out each time; each time you do this around tough and painful emotions and physical sensations, you gain a little more confidence to start putting more of your toe, your foot, your leg, etc. into the water without getting overwhelmed.
Recovering from trauma is process that empowers you, where you learn how to soothe yourself, and ultimately where you gain mastery over thoughts and feelings to which you have long felt a victim.
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