“Trauma is perhaps the most avoided, ignored, belittled, denied, misunderstood, and untreated cause of human suffering.” (Peter Levine, 1997)
This page of my website describes some key aspects of trauma and its treatment. It is important to know that people are capable of finding pathways to integrate the terrible destructiveness of trauma and even to turn it into their advantage, finding new meanings and purpose to their lives.
The sorts of events that can be experienced as traumatic are those where we feel helpless and overwhelmed. The younger we are, the more vulnerable we are. For example, traumatic events may include:
- childhood neglect, abuse, loss
- domestic violence
- assault or attack by a person or animal
- sudden traumatic bereavement
- a natural disaster
- an accident (e.g. in a car or work)
- intrusive surgery
When we perceive danger, our primitive survival systems are activated. This is below conscious thinking, out of our control, and provides a lightening response to a perceived threat. For example, we put out a hand to save ourselves when we’re falling, long before our conscious brain has realised we’re going to hurt ourselves. Like other mammals, our defensive responses to threat include taking action like running away, using physical force to defend ourselves, and if these aren’t possible, shutting down and going very still – the fight, flight, freeze responses. Our bodies know well how to do this and without help from our minds.
Unfortunately sometimes these defensive strategies don’t work to save us from harm, or sometimes they just aren’t possible to put into practice, for example, because we’re suddenly caught unawares or immobilised. For some people then, it’s as if our alarm system gets stuck onto ‘on’. At a deep level our system continues to operate as if we’re still in current danger, even though it may be long past. We haven’t integrated and updated our system that it’s now safe. What’s more, our minds are likely to try to block out the trauma experience because it’s so painful and terrifying, finding ways to distract and avoid, to split it off and keep it away. We may not even consciously know we were traumatised, particularly if it happened when we were very young. However, because it’s still active down deep, in our bodies and brains, not resolved, it keeps pushing through in all sorts of ways.
Some of the signs of unresolved trauma include:
- feelings of shame and worthlessness
- anxiety and panic attacks,
- poor concentration, not able to relax, irritability
- jumpiness, quick to startle, always on guard, feeling unsafe
- mistrust, difficulty in getting close, needing to be in control
- flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and nightmares
- numbness, loss of interest, depression, hopelessness
- feeling distant, unreal, out of body
- self-destructive behaviour, substance misuse, eating issues
- extreme risk taking
- headaches, pain without medical cause
- anger, aggression, drive.
These signs of unresolved trauma arise from our primitive defensive systems still working to protect us from perceived current danger, or, alternatively, from the strategies we’re using to try to keep the distress at bay.
The aim of therapy is to allow experience of trauma to take its rightful place in the past, enabling a healthy present life. It’s about moving to a place where the trauma can be safely remembered as something in the past, rather than continuing to re-live it. It’s about making sense of what happened and integrating it.
The understanding of the impact of traumatic events has increased significantly over recent years, based on findings from neuroscience. Traditional ‘talking therapies’ have been augmented by approaches that can help without the need to talk about all the details of what happened. Furthermore, it is now known that revisiting traumatic experiences without careful attention to safety can be retraumatising and make things worse.
As the body plays such an important role in our responses to trauma, somatic approaches can be particularly useful as a way to access the body’s natural healing systems. Therapy needs to take account, however, of body, emotion and cognition, to work with and integrate on all these levels. Our bodies may need to release stuckness, our emotions may need to be expressed, and our minds will need to make sense of our experience. For some people, the spiritual aspect of their journey may also be very important.
The good news is that as more and more is understood about the impact of trauma on the body and the brain, treatment is becoming ever more effective.
In the midst of struggling with the impact of adversity it may be hard to see anything beneficial at all in what happened. The notion of ‘post-traumatic growth’ may feel far away. However, it may help to know that a growing body of research findings evidence that for many people traumatic events can act as a catalyst for positive change. Indeed, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been described by a key researcher as “the process of personal transformation in action” (Stephen Joseph). Trauma of all kinds – bereavement, assault, accidents, natural disasters, abuse – can transform the course of our lives in surprising ways. Adversity can be a way that some people become more true to themselves, more conscious of what really matters to them, more able to view life from a wide perspective. It can awaken people to new and more meaningful lives.
Of course, this is not to suggest that people are glad that their trauma happened, more that if something terrible happens, it can bring unexpected benefits to themselves and other people.
A metaphor for the growth that can follow adversity is that of a beautiful glass vase that smashes on the floor and is then transformed as the pieces of glass are refashioned as a wonderful mosaic. Or a forest fire that destroys all in its path, and also acts as a catalyst for new growth, allowing nature to rebalance and new trees and flowers to proliferate. At the time, the vase falling and the fire raging are experienced as disasters. They are…. AND also they hold potential for something new to emerge.
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