What is Trauma?
Updated: Oct 24, 2022
A Look at What is Trauma and What is Trauma Healing
Did you know? 70% of people have, or will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime. Trauma effects all people, does not matter their age, gender, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
People may experience a one time traumatic event, often referred to as acute trauma, or experience chronic trauma, which is repeated, prolonged traumatic events. If you have experienced a one time traumatic event, you may look at your life as a story with a clear ‘before’ and ‘after’. If you have experienced repeated, prolonged, and multiple traumatic events, these were likely interpersonal experiences and began early in life. These experiences may disrupt brain development, forming secure attachment relationships, your sense of self, and your ability to soothe and regulate emotions.
Society has come a long way in the discussion of trauma and expanding our view of trauma beyond combat soldiers and veterans. Many individuals who experienced traumatizing events struggle with the healing process afterward.
You may feel guilty or ashamed for how you’re feeling, or, you may not even know how or what to feel. You may find it difficult to feel connected or understood by others and struggle in having happy and healthy friendships and romantic relationships. While shoving your trauma memories back into the far corners of your mind may relieve you of your symptoms, in the moment, your body and brain may still be storing the memories of these experiences. You may continue to struggle with irritability, relational issues, unwanted memories, distress, concentration struggles, not feeling present, hopelessness, and physical pain or discomfort. Sometimes people experience a traumatic event and are able to work through it on their own without long lasting impact, other times individuals experience traumatic events that are never fully overcome until it is directly addressed.
So, what does trauma healing look like and how can you start your journey into untangling these difficult emotions and memories? Let’s talk about it.
What Is Trauma?
As society has become more and more open on the topic of trauma, it may be confusing for some if you have never been a part of this conversation before. The word ‘trauma’ is thrown around left and right but what exactly does it mean? What kinds of circumstances count as ‘traumatic’?
Trauma itself is an emotional response an individual experiences after being exposed to a deeply disturbing or distressing event - an experience that contributes to the inability to cope, helplessness, fearfulness, and shaking their personal safety and well-being. A traumatic event on the other hand is the situation that causes this.
Also, it has become commonplace for the words “trauma” and “PTSD” to show up in our daily conversations and social media content. Most of the time, these words are being used to describe a difficult situation that was upsetting or distressing - but not necessarily an experience that contributed to an inability to cope AND was experienced as a threat to the person’s life, bodily integrity, or ego integrity.
There are Big “T” Traumas - and these tend to be big, overwhelming, and scary events, such as the ones below.
A traumatic event can be a one time experience (acute) such as:
Seeing someone die
Or, trauma can stem from long term experiences (chronic) such as:
Starvation or neglect
There are also experiences that you go through that leave a lasting impression, such as infidelity, divorce, a stressful move, or difficult interpersonal relationship. These experiences are often referred to as small “t” trauma. Small “t” traumas can stack up on each other and their accumulated effect contributes to distress, being emotionally and physically overwhelmed, and daily functioning problems in school, work, social, and romantic relationships.
What Is Normal To Feel After A Traumatic Event?
No matter what kind of trauma you’ve endured, a traumatic event leaves an imprint on your brain. Keep in mind, the word ‘normal’ is entirely subjective and everyone processes trauma differently.
There are a few shared experiences among individuals with trauma, however.
Fear and Anxiety: This is one of the most common emotional responses while processing trauma. You may feel on edge, or like you’re constantly watching over your shoulder. You may even start to feel better until something or someone triggers the traumatic memory. This fear may cause you to avoid certain people or places.
Nightmares: Nightmares pertaining to the traumatic event are quite common in those with trauma. As we sleep, our nervous systems and brains are still trying to make sense of the situation. They’re still working overtime to put the pieces together. While these nightmares may not be of the exact situation, they will still revolve around certain themes.
Flashbacks: When something or someone around you triggers the traumatic memory you may experience flashbacks. You may feel as though the entire traumatic event is happening all over again. These can be particularly upsetting as they usually bring back an intense wave of emotions and memories.
Anger: It’s perfectly normal for an individual with trauma to feel angry afterwards. You may feel angry at the situation, or a person who caused the situation. You may feel angry at yourself for something you could have done differently. No matter who or what you’re angry at, just remember to be patient with yourself.
Sadness: It makes sense to feel sad after a traumatic event. You may feel overwhelmed at your new perception of the world, or you might be feeling extreme grief if your trauma involved losing someone or something.
A few other common reactions to trauma include:
Difficulty trusting those close to us
A belief that the world is now dangerous
In addition to the emotional symptoms and reactions to traumatic events, your body also stores trauma memories. Unprocessed traumatic memories can become sticking points that cause our mental and physical processes to malfunction. Your body and brain will store information collected by your senses - sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. At times, you may experience a sensation that sends you right back to the traumatic event that you experienced. This could be the smell of a food that was present during your assault or the sound of a voice that is similar to that of your abusive parent. Additionally, as your body and brain holds the traumatic events that you have experienced, you may notice increase tightness, tension, pain, or dysfunction of other body systems
At Home Trauma Healing:
In many cases, a traumatic event will cause an influx of emotions but will gradually subside as time goes on. As weeks and months pass, you’ll find yourself slowly returning to the person you once were. In these cases, at home tips to overcoming your trauma are incredibly helpful and can kick start the healing process.
Here are a few ways to help ignite your trauma healing on your own:
Research has proven time and time again that journaling is an excellent pathway for healing from trauma. Not only are you able to sit and get all those thoughts, emotions, memories, and confusion out of your head and onto paper, journaling has been proven to help cope with symptoms of PTSD such as anger, sadness, and anxiety.
It may seem incredibly easy to reach for that fourth glass of wine on a night you can’t get those memories out of your head, but alcohol has only been proven to prolong the healing process. Many people who experience trauma reach for substances (like alcohol) to help numb their feelings. While it might relieve those symptoms at the moment, they only keep them at bay for a short time.
Take Care Of Your Body:
The mind - body connection is more powerful than many people truly understand. Take a moment to listen to your body. What is it saying? Your body will tell you how to heal if you take the time to care for it. Get enough sleep. Eat whole, healthy meals. Get your body moving, even for 20 minutes a day. When you take care of your body, your mind will follow.
Most of us live our lives either waiting for the future, or looking back on the past. Meditation works to resolve exactly that. Taking even 10 minutes every morning to meditate not only helps you ground yourself in the present moment, but creates a bridge for you to get in touch with your inner emotions. Instead of going about our day trying to ignore them, meditation brings them to the forefront and allows us to work through them. Try one of our guided mindfulness exercises.
Find a Support System:
One of the biggest factors that may impact an individual's healing process is the support they have around them. You may feel tempted to isolate yourself from the rest of the world but even finding a few close friends or family members to share your struggles with can make a huge difference. When you’re ready you can even find a support group full of those who are struggling with the same trauma.
Professional Help in Coping and Healing from Trauma
If you are noticing that your symptoms and responses are sticking around and do not seem to be reducing, or if you are struggling to engage in your daily life and relationships, it may be time to reach out for professional help with a mental health professional. Psychologists, counselors, and social workers have specialized training to assist you in finding a sense of safety and stability, increasing coping skills, resources, and building resilience. Once you have developed this foundation, your therapist will incorporate evidence based techniques and interventions into your treatment to help you process through your traumas.
Evidenced Based Trauma Treatments:
Cognitive Processing Therapy
Trauma and traumatic events impact the way you think about yourself, the world, and others. Your brain will start developing unhelpful automatic thoughts. Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) assists individuals in increasing awareness of the relationship between their thoughts and emotions. While working with a clinician in a safe and supportive relationship, you will begin to identify which thoughts are helpful and which thoughts are unhelpful and begin to change your perspective. When you are ready, you will create a trauma narrative regarding your traumatic experiences and utilize newly learned skills to disrupt the pattern of thoughts and feelings associated with your trauma. Your therapist will help you find helpful and adaptive beliefs. For more information: Cognitive Processing Therapy
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy
When you have experienced a traumatic event(s), the disturbing experiences become locked in your body and brain if the memories were not processed naturally. The unprocessed memories are the emotions, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and physical sensations associated with the traumas you experienced. EMDR therapy utilizes an 8-Phase structured approach. These phases include history taking, developing resources and preparing the client, identifying targets, and processing the past, present and future aspects of the event. Through this approach, EMDR reduces the emotional pain, distress, and triggers from past events. For more information: EMDR Therapy
Individuals who experience traumatic event(s) have a tendency to avoid thoughts, feelings, and pains that remind them of the experiences that they have been through. Prolonged Exposure therapy assists you in gradually approaching your memories, feelings, situations, and experiences related to your trauma. By slowly confronting your trauma memories in a safe environment, you will learn that your trauma-related memories and cues are not dangerous and do not need to be avoided. For more information: Prolonged Exposure Therapy
Trauma Focused CBT
This form of therapy is used with children and adolescents who have experienced various traumatic events. Trauma Focused CBT (TF-CBT) aims to treat kids through use of child focused and parent focused sessions. The phases of treatment focus on learning and understanding the impact of trauma, increasing coping skills, expressing thoughts and feelings, creating a trauma narrative and processing the narrative. Additionally, parents and caregivers are assisted to learn how to utilize positive parenting skills, improve communication, and be part of the child’s processing of their trauma narrative. Throughout the therapy, the child or adolescent will increase feelings of safety and trust in their relationships, be able to address and work through their trauma, and learn to regulate their emotions. For more information: TF-CBT
Growing and Healing From Trauma:
While trauma isn’t something anyone wants to struggle with, what if I told you there’s a silver lining to even some of the most traumatic experiences?
Human beings are incredibly resilient even in the aftermath of trauma. For some people, their trauma serves as a platform for complete personal transformation. This is a process called post-traumatic growth. Instead of allowing your trauma to fester like a heavy burden upon your back, trauma can actually act as a catalyst for positive change. This requires the daily work of healing and addressing your trauma head-on, though.
Post traumatic growth is different from resiliency. Resilience is your ability to adapt and cope with difficulties - even traumas - through cognitive - emotional - and behavioral flexibility. Your use of coping strategies, a support system, and how you view the world can increase your resilience. If you embody resilience, you are less likely to experience the helplessness, hopelessness, fearfulness, and shaking of your personal safety and well-being.
As mentioned previously, Post traumatic growth can occur when you address your trauma head on. Through learning about it and the impact it has, increasing your emotion regulation, processing traumatic experiences, and developing a new story about your life after your experience of trauma, you will set the stage to grow and heal. Through this process, you may begin to recognize your personal strength, experience a greater appreciation for life, recognize new possibilities, improve your relationships, and experience spiritual growth or change.
No matter what you’ve been through, healing from your past trauma is possible. If you feel overwhelmed or hopeless keep in mind there are many mental health professionals out there who dedicate their lives to helping you grow and overcome your pain. You don’t have to heal from trauma alone.
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