Trauma is one of the of those words that has been absorbed into our everyday conversations, and when people use the term they mean psychological trauma. This is a huge departure from previous decades where people might have felt too much shame to discuss their trauma in public, while others considered that they might be overreacting given that their emotional trauma was nothing compared to those with “real PTSD.” In today’s day, it is frequently shown on social media posts, TikTok’s, and the many wellness coaches encouraging everyone to heal from their trauma to feel free. The positive thing about being able to talk about it openly is that the average person appears to be more aware of how their past difficult experiences continue to affect them years and years later. They are not wrong in their assessment as trauma can absolutely cause harm. Let’s start with the simple definition of trauma. According to psychology today: “Trauma is a person’s emotional response to a distressing experience.” Few people can go through life without encountering some kind of trauma. To be fair, it really does not take much to experience trauma. We might both minimize or exaggerate our experiences for different reasons. I do not judge how someone copes or faces life because this is a completely subjective experience. I know I’m departing from the norm as many might easily jump to problem-solving, advise giving, and evaluating how someone else is managing a situation that they think they might respond to in a different way. The other thing that adds to the subjective experience is that there are different types of trauma: Acute, Chronic, and Complex. Plus a person’s temperament also contributes to their response style. I’m getting a little ahead, so let’s start by examining the elements of trauma and then expand on the types of trauma.
Ingredients of Trauma
We are confronted with various challenges throughout our lives and we are fortunate to have a general capacity to confront most of them readily and easily. However, when these four ingredients are present we most often experience a traumatic event:
- The event/experience is unexpected
- The person feels unprepared to confront or manage it
- There is nothing the person can do to stop it or get away from it
- The person lacks support to address the event/experience
When all of these ingredients are present we experience a deep activation of our nervous system. This might look like overwhelm, shock, disbelief, withdrawal, anger, fear, sadness…, etc., in essence our fight-or-flight gets activated. Okay, so this means that humans basically only experience these three states of being:
- Safe– when we feel good, even keeled, happy, engaged in life
- Active– threat or excitement activates hyperarousal (fight-or-flight), the body gets flooded with stress hormones: epinephrine, cortisol, dopamine, and body stops non essential tasks like digestion. This is typically associated with anxiety or PTSD. Although unexpected positive experiences can also activate this physiological response; think of military dad surprising family after being gone for an extended period of time, you will see hyperarousal with crying and because there is no threat the nervous system is able to calm back down rather quickly.
- Inactive– extreme danger or threat is perceived and person shuts down. At times people are completely frozen (complete withdrawal from social engagement or refusal to make decisions), or dissociation can happen. Think of this as the worst states of PTSD we can imagine with all the dissociation. I would even go as far as saying some people might even go on automatic pilot. The person engages in life activities, but most people can tell they are not present.
Types of Trauma
So we’ve discussed what trauma is, how trauma happens, and how to differentiate between states of being: safe, active, inactive or in other words, engaged, hyperaroused, or dissociated. Now let’s expand on the types of trauma (Acute, Chronic, and Complex) and what leads to difficulty with coping.
Acute Trauma– When a person is exposed to a single event that threatens the physical or emotional safety of an individual. Take for instance the following examples: a car accident, a house break-in, or witnessing an act of physical violence; each individually would cause the person distress, however after discussing it repeatedly the person would eventually go back to a regulated nervous system. Processing the event and letting time pass helps the person regulate. Additionally, the fact that the event is not repeated helps the person remember they are safe.
Chronic Trauma- When a person is exposed to multiple, long-term or prolonged distressing events over an extended period of time. Some examples of this type of trauma might be: bullying, chronic illness, violence in the community, or even a pandemic. While time will heal wounds, typically chronic trauma has lasting effects and might change the person’s outlook on life. People may either take more risks or no risks at all. You are more likely to see intense commitment to certain behaviors.
My personal story of having limited support from extended family members really shaped me. One generational trauma pattern I noticed in my family is that in-laws could not get along. My parents could not get along with each others’ in-laws, my grandparents also did not get along with each others’ in-laws, and I noticed my husband had a similar story. Fast forward to my current life and family and I noticed a similar pattern starting to form. When I take inventory of my spouse avoiding his family or not allow them to get to close to me for fear of frequent criticism and my desire to overly engage in family activities with my family for fear of break down, I know it’s all trauma related. I had to learn to change how I relate to my family to have a healthier connection with everyone and decrease the chances of interpersonal family challenges.
Complex Trauma- This is the same as chronic trauma; exposure to prolonged distressing events over an extended period of time, however it has the added component of being in an interpersonal relationship with the source of the trauma. For instance, being a child of a parent, having family members, or sibling causing abuse, being a person with chronic illness dealing with health issues or medical professionals, or being part of a community that is frequently a victim of violence. The common thread is that the “victim” is often trapped or unable to get away from the situation at all because of aspects they cannot control such as: age, sexual orientation, gender, culture, disability, health status, immigration status…etc., This type of trauma typically has the most severe impact on the person’s mind. The lack of support and the inability to get away makes it incredibly frightening. This explains, for instance, why abuse victims have a hard time speaking up or getting away.
How to Manage Distress of Trauma
First of all, it is important to note that coping with trauma can only happen after the exposure to the trauma has stopped. If the trauma is still happening then the best case scenario is learning how to use coping and distraction while you are facing the trauma until the exposure stops. Once the trauma has stopped then we can focus on working through the trauma. Consider the following steps to begin coping and working through trauma:
Acknowledging: Start by acknowledging the trauma and what it is that has happened through radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is the immediate acceptance that what happened was real and that it had an impact on you. This will help stop you from engaging in the trap of thinking about why it happened or that it should not have happened. When we get stuck in that trap then we are in a perpetual state of emotional distress and pain. Acceptance allows us to take inventory and simply begin to move past the anger or sadness about it happening. This step is supremely important because humans are story tellers by nature and we make up stories about ourselves regarding why the trauma happened and what it meant/means about us. However, story telling while you are in a state of hyperarousal does not make sense given that this state is primarily focused on determining whether you are safe or not safe.
Identify Emotions: While everyone talks about emotions and feelings as interchangeable words, they are two separate things. Emotions are physiological responses in the body. The core emotions are: anger, sadness, fear, and love/joy. We also have combinations of emotions: sadness and fear equal shame, anger and sadness equal depression, anger and fear equal anxiety, and anger, sadness, fear, and love equal grief. Feelings on the other hand are our interpretations of the interaction between our environment and the physiological reactions. Traumatic events consistently engender shame due to feeling powerless during the events. The impact of the event does not go away once the event is over especially because people either dissociate, ignore, avoid, or frequently replay the memories.
Trauma of Trauma: Be careful of the trap of replaying the trauma memories because it can be traumatic to keep thinking of the pain. It is not uncommon for individuals to feel retraumatized especially when it involves a negative story about the self as a result about the trauma.
Stabilize the Nervous System: A very important step is learning how to regulate the nervous system. Deep breathing exercises are the most common and easiest way to stabilize. If it is difficult to engage in deep breathing exercises then using any activity that would allow for physical movement with controlled breathing will be the most helpful. You could do this through yoga, dancing, singing, gardening, walking, or exercising. Use of any of these physical activities, paired with breathing while setting a personal intention to calm your nervous system down will give you the desired effect of calming the nervous system.
Tell Your Story: The goal of healing is not to stop thinking about your story, but rather to be able to think about your story, or tell your story completely from beginning to middle and end without activating your nervous system.
Trauma can happen to anyone. It can affect anyone because no one is immune. Our minds are super powerful, but they are a double edged sword. The mind can be both the thing that heals us and the thing that causes us the most pain since we can easily feel trapped in our own minds. However, please know that you can heal anytime and remember that whenever you come to your healing journey IS the right time.