A traumatic event involves a single experience, or set of enduring conditions, that are life threatening (subjectively) and completely overwhelm a person’s ability to cope or integrate the ideas and feelings in that experience. Common elements of the event are that it was unexpected, the person was unprepared and that they could do nothing to stop it happening.
Some of these are a one-off event such as accidents, physical or sexual assault, rape, acts of terrorism, sudden or traumatic bereavement, medical interventions and diagnosis etc. Some people experience multiple one-off events throughout their lives and some people experience complex traumas that are endured for years like physical, emotional and sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, war and natural disasters.
Some people can start to experience trauma symptoms by being repeatedly exposed to other people’s trauma, hearing stories of traumatic events or exposure to difficult and disturbing images. It is often termed secondary traumatic stress or vicarious trauma and can occur in professionals who work in high stress and trauma exposed fields (paramedics, police, social workers, therapists etc). It can also happen outside of a professional capacity when a person is deeply impacted by hearing details of a traumatic event that happened to a friend or a loved one.
Whilst traumatic experiences and how people respond to them can vary widely, what they all have in common is that it can be very difficult for our nervous systems to process the trauma and put it in the past. Put simply our brain and bodies continue to react as if the danger is still happening. Bessel Van Der Kolk, who is a world-renowned expert on trauma puts it like this “After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system that has an altered perception of safety and risk”.
Symptoms of Trauma
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Depression and loss of interest
- Emotional overwhelm
- Feeling mistrustful
- Feeling hopeless
- Few or no memories
- Insomnia, nightmares and sleep disturbance
- Angry outbursts
- Feeling numb and spaced out and/or like things aren’t real
- Shame, self-blame and guilt
- Self-destructive behaviour
- Using drugs, alcohol, self-harm as a form of numbing
- Disordered eating
- Chronic pain and health issues
If you are a person who has experienced trauma, I know it can be scary to take that first step to reach out to another person to start your journey of personal healing. It’s also important to know that retelling your story in detail isn’t always necessary and for some people can be unhelpful. If that feels like a relief, or the idea of telling the story is what stops you from coming for therapy, then there are many ways to work with trauma without having to recount all the details. Processing your trauma memories may or may not be something you wish to do further down the line. Many people feel their therapy is complete once the trauma symptoms in day-to-day life are improved. For others processing specific trauma memories feels like an important part of their healing. Either way we will work together to ensure that trauma therapy is a safe experience that doesn’t become overwhelming.
“If we consider that helplessness and isolation are the core experiences of trauma then power and reconnections are the core experiences of recovery” – Judith Herman.