Do you often…
- Feel unsafe, even in moments when you know that nothing bad can happen to you?
- Become easily up set by events and interactions with people, such that you feel like fleeing the scene, fighting back, or completely shutting down?
- Have difficulty controlling your emotional reactions and feel they are “overblown” or that you are “numb”?
- Wonder if you will ever “get over” things that happened to you in the past?
- Have unexplained nightmares?
- Feel like you cannot trust anyone?
If you have answered yes to these or similar questions, you have likely experienced a traumatic event or events at some point in your life.
What is a traumatic event or events?
The word “trauma” originates from an ancient Greek term for injury or wound and is used to refer to (a) a traumatic stressor or event(s), (b), our behavioral reactions to that event and (c) our psychological response to the event. Traumatic experiences loosely fall into two categories. The first of these includes “incident” trauma, or witnessing, such as accidents, terrorist attacks, combat related experiences, assaults, and natural disasters, termed “Type I” traumas. The second, sometimes referred to as “Type II” trauma includes stressors that are prolonged or repetitive, occur early in life, are interpersonal, and involve physical, sexual, and emotional abuse or neglect, or witnessing violence, substance use or mental illness in caregivers or other important adults. If you have been exposed to traumatic events such as these, you may have strong emotional reactions to events in the present that may be reminders of the past.
What are PTSD and complex PTSD?
People who have experienced Type I trauma may experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. You may have PTSD if you have intrusive memories of the event, experience avoidance or numbing, and feel hyperarousal, where your nervous system is on edge most of the time. However, the foremost trauma experts have recognized that while survivors of Type II, or chronic interpersonal trauma may have PTSD, their symptoms may be more complicated and also include low mood, difficulty controlling anger, numbness or even dissociation, anxiety, irritability, and may engage in tension reducing behavior such as avoidance or substance use. These reactions are the mind and nervous system’s expectable attempts to make sense of out witnessing or surviving a traumatic event, and to tolerate its emotional impact.
How does my experience of trauma affect me in my day to day life?
Those of us who have experienced trauma and abuse develop ways of coping with the world that are strongly influenced by these traumas, and which become the lens through which we manage our close attachments, friendships, work relationships, and parenting. This is particularly true when the source of our traumatic experience and fear is also our main source of attachment – like a parent or other close caregiver. As attachment experts Mary Main and Erik Hesse state, this produces an irresolvable paradox and can interfere with our attachments throughout life.
Trauma affects us on three levels: cognition (thought), emotions (feelings), and somatically (body sensations). Trauma survivors often find ways of avoiding their disturbing thoughts, feelings and body sensations by avoiding situations which “trigger” fear and anxiety.
Disturbing thoughts we may experience include feeling “stuck” and unable to “move past our past”, or that people are criticizing, judging, or out to hurt or abandon us. We may feel as though we cannot trust anyone, since those closest to us may not have protected us from abuse, violence or neglect. Another set of thoughts very common among childhood abuse survivors, particularly sexual abuse, is that we are in some way responsible for what happened – that we provoked it, could have stopped it, let terrible things go on too long – in other words, shame and guilt. What trauma survivors often forget is that they were small, and their abusers were large and threatening, or at times, the people closest to them. It is an adult’s responsibility to care for children and protect them from harm.
Disturbing feelings we may have include, as trauma expert Pat Ogden says, “feeling too much” – anger, emotional swings, deep sadness and tearfulness, or “feeling too little”, or being numb. We may feel emotionally labile – like we are on a rollercoaster. Many trauma survivors state they “live from the neck up” and are unwilling to experience what they feel in their bodies, even though working with these feelings may be a very important aspect of healing from trauma.
Disturbing somatic (bodily) sensations are often the key to trauma, because they are what we may have felt when the trauma happened. Often, these sensations, and the emotions and thoughts attached to them get walled off in our psyches, but do not really go away and can become set off or “triggered” by present events. Emotions like dread, fear and helplessness get “fuel” from our body sensations. Strong body reactions may include tightness or pain in your stomach or chest, palpitations and nausea, a desire to flee, or postures like hunched or rigid shoulders or back.
Those of us who survived traumatic events may wonder if it is possible to safely explore these events, and the thoughts, feelings and sensations we may have without feeling worse. While trauma processing can be painful, in the context of a strong and safe therapeutic alliance with a therapist that has training, experience and understanding of trauma-focused psychotherapy, you will find that you may gain deeper understanding of why you “are the way you are”. You will develop safe ways of addressing traumatic stress that help you enhance resilience and flexibility, access your innate strengths, resources and ability to grow, expand your capacity for happiness and fulfillment, gain access to your true self, and heal.
My Approach To Trauma Treatment
My trauma studies and experiences working with my clients have solidified my belief in a strong mind-body connection and that therapy must often go beyond talk, and explore messages from our physical selves that may provide clues to where we are most “stuck”.