What happens when you experience trauma?
There are many different types of trauma. Some are a one off incident such as vehicle accidents, others are repeated trauma's such as war or domestic violence.
Trauma is a threat to life experience, so at the point of trauma the brain goes into a survival mode.
- A release of energy boosting neurochemicals, adrenalin and cortisol.
- Digestion stops.
- Muscles are more efficient, in order to run away.
- Attention is really focussed or in some cases completely blank.
- Memory is stored differently.
Trauma can lead to physical and psychological effects later. This can occur at any time after the initial event/s - it can be months or years later. Not everybody will experience all or any effects. Some effects following trauma are:
Intrusive thoughts. These can be intrusive thoughts about the traumatic event, or intrusive negative thoughts about the self. These thoughts can race and feel impossible to shut down or control.
Intense emotions such as fear or anger can occur suddenly - they may be triggered by an association to the initial trauma, but you may not always know the triggers and the triggers may be numerous.
Flashbacks are a reliving of the trauma as though it is happening at that time. This is linked to how memory is stored during trauma and is the brain's way of processing traumatic events. Flashbacks may come on suddenly and are so intense; smells and all that occurred during trauma is relived, and because of this they can feel frightening and painful.
Heart racing. The bit of your brain that is so important for survival can become oversensitive following trauma, and this can lead to all sorts of physical sensations such as a racing heart and fast breathing.
Digestive problems. As above, if the survival part of you brain is over-sensitive it can act as it did at the time of trauma, and this includes taking resources from your digestion to give more energy to your muscles which can result in digestive problems.
Disrupted sleep. Because the survival brain does not feel safe it is always on alert, which disrupts sleep and other important care-taking routines. The type of trauma may also contribute to poor sleep patterns.
Hyper-vigilance. This means feeling as though you are always on guard for signs of danger.
Memory problems. Trauma can lead to all kinds of memory problems. The specific memory problem depends on the trauma, how long it lasted and how old you were. You may have difficulties with attention, short-term memory, long-term memory or putting memory in chronological order. You may be able to remember facts but find recalling people or situations difficult, or vice versa. There may be chunks of time in life that are difficult to remember. This can impact on care-taking routines such as remembering to drink and eat. Work can feel more stressful as you may fear forgetting to do a task or do things more than once.
Feeling numb. In order to protect yourself from intense feelings and carry on with daily life, sometimes a response to trauma can be feeling completely numb as though you cannot feel anything. This can be particularly uncomfortable as it is difficult to find meaning when feeling numb.
Feeling distant. In relationships with others, this may relate to the trauma experienced or to the feelings of numbness as described above. It can feel very lonely being unable to connect with others.
Exhaustion. The survival part of the brain uses lots of energy to try to escape and protect the body from injury; that can involve the release of adrenalin or a racing heartbeat, and after this you may feel particularly exhausted.
Hypo-vigilance. Sometimes trauma shuts down attention in order to protect you. This can result in not noticing things and being unaware of danger, for example crossing a road without looking.
Difficulty trusting others. Depending on the cause of trauma, it can sometimes be very difficult to trust anybody. This can impact on making connections with others as well as receiving support.
You can work through the effects of trauma with therapy and live a fuller, more functional life. Trauma can feel as though it defines you - with support it can be put into context.
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About Jacqueline Karaca
Jacquie Karaca is a psychotherapist and author. She practices individual and relationship counselling in Alsager.