What is Trauma?
Trauma is spoken about a lot nowadays. People profess to be trauma informed, traumatised, suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ( PTSD), but little is understood about what it all means. Bessel Van Der Kolk (1) says that trauma changes the brain, meaning that the world never looks the same again. Trauma (Trauma..Shockwaves Through the generations..) is not an abstract tale but is lived out in the body, felt as ‘heartbreak’ of horror and disgust in the body. In trying to run away from this pain that is too great to bear, people reach for drink, drugs, or other high risk behaviours. The quest is to stop feeling because it is too much to cope with. Addiction and childhood trauma are linked together, one being the cause, the other the treatment.
According to The Mental Health.Org (2) :
“Around 1 in 3 adults in England report having experienced at least one traumatic event. Traumatic events can be defined as experiences that put either a person or someone close to them at risk of serious harm or death. These can include:
- Road accidents
- Violence/prolonged abuse
- Natural disasters
- Serious illnesses.’
Trauma & the Stress Response
Trauma is when an event occurs that is too much for our minds to deal with or understand. When a potentially traumatic event occurs, your body goes into its’ stress response. It prepares your body for fight, flight, freeze or flop. Blood goes to the heart and to the larger muscles in the limbs, ready for you to do whatever your body needs you to do in order that you survive. After the threat has passed, the adrenalin and cortisol that flooded the body to transform you into an organism that really must survive by any means possible, starts to subside, causing shaking in the hands and possibly leading to shock. Reliving the event is normal and can lead to low mood that usually passes with time. This is when the brain questions your actions, it second guesses the action taken at the time of the threat, it will give you a case of the ‘shudders’. You should have done this, should have done that….on & on…in a critical damaging loop.
Recognising the Symptoms of Trauma
If these initial feelings do not resolve themselves, a person can become ‘stuck’ in the trauma. That is when PTSD and depression can set in. Bessel Van Der Kolk talks here about recognising the symptoms of trauma:
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ( PTSD)
The person suffering fromPTSD relives the event time and time again, has flashbacks, insomnia and feels that the threat has not passed. They may struggle to concentrate, connect with others and feel increasingly isolated. The impact on life can be significant, leading to loss of work, home, family….It can occur straight away or weeks or months after the trauma. Not everyone will get PTSD but this does not make it any less real and certainly, there are some events that are so inhuman, no person would go unscathed. People may go through the same experience and recover quickly, but others will not and this in itself can add another layer of shame and guilt to a traumatised person, ‘Why are they ok & I am not?’
Complex PTSD occurs when a person has gone through more than one traumatic event or in childhood they were exposed to abuse, violence or neglect at such a vulnerable age. Symptoms of Complex PTSD are as follows (3)
- Feelings of shame or guilt
- Difficulty controlling your emotions
- Periods of losing attention and concentration (dissociation)
- Physical symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, chest pains and stomach aches
- Cutting yourself off from friends and family
- Relationship difficulties
- Destructive or risky behaviour, such as self-harm, alcohol misuse or drug abuse
- Suicidal thoughts
Therapy can help but it will usually be long term and the person will probably need ongoing support. The hardest thing for a person with complex PTSD is to stay the course for therapy. It can be excruciatingly painful and threatens to flood the individual, allowing the catastrophic pain to overwhelm. It often feels easier to avoid and ‘cope’ by relying on old habits such as avoidance, drink, drugs etc, as mentioned earlier, rather than sit with the pain.
Depression is experienced as deep profound loss of hope or motivation to engage in life. The feelings of hopelessness and anxiety do not go away but are persistent and deep. Nothing shifts the mood & are interlinked with trauma, but not exclusively.
If reaching out for support is not enough to help you, then seek therapy, especially if the low mood continues. Your life is being affected, relationships are suffering, your ability to work or study is being compromised. There is help out here, you do not have to travel this path on your own.
If positive thinking and your usual coping strategies are not working, then it really ok to seek help. You would if you injured your leg or other body part, so the same applies to the mind.
It is ok to ask for help.
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- Bessel Van Der Kolk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWEjnGsLN-0
- The Mental Health Organisation: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/impact-traumatic-events-mental-health
- NHS: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/complex/