What is trauma and what is its impact physically and emotionally?
Mind defines trauma as '...when we experience very stressful, frightening or distressing events that are difficult to cope with or out of our control. It could be one incident or an ongoing event that happens over a long period of time.'
Some examples include abuse (sexual, emotional, physical, neglect, bullying, etc.), financial worries, fear of losing our job or home, unexpected or chronic health concerns, loss of a relative (or the fear of losing them) and the circumstances surrounding this, and wars.
Powerlessness and shame
Trauma can lead to a sense of powerlessness, anxiety and shame at being unable to stop the events that led to the trauma. Sometimes the trauma is so overwhelming that people shut down their experience in an attempt to escape from it. This may come in the form of minimising it, feeling that they 'should have been able to cope or escape.' They may talk about needing to 'be strong.'
People's sense of self can also be profoundly affected. They may have a sense of feeling worthless, rejected, or abandoned. They may fear sharing their experience because they don't think that people will believe them or fear further threats.
Where is trauma held?
Trauma is held in the body and brain and the nervous system is affected by its attempts to keep us safe in an environment which is not safe. The fight, flight, freeze survival brain will be hyper-vigilant – this can lead to a pervasive sense of not feeling safe and a sense of overwhelm. Our mind and body are inextricably intertwined. The shock of trauma can be long-lasting.
People may experience tense muscles, pain in the jaw or chest, stomach pain, feeling nauseous or lightheaded, headaches and other physical symptoms.
Sometimes, people are triggered by seeing, hearing or feeling something that reminds their survival brain of their experience.
An example of being triggered might be an actual experience of taking a sick relative to the hospital by ambulance and that relative not surviving. Going forward, the next time this person hears the sirens and sees the blue lights, they have a panic attack. This is because their survival brain has stored ambulances and blue lights as not safe. Of course, as a general rule, if we hear ambulance sirens someone is in need of help but it is not necessarily our situation.
Panic attacks happen when we are completely overwhelmed with anxiety and can include a racing heart, sweaty palms, feeling disconnected from ourselves and our surroundings, an upset stomach, trembling, and shortness of breath. This list is not exhaustive.
Connecting with yourself
When trauma happens, we may have pushed the trauma down or away depending on when it happened. This can be a coping strategy which helps to keep us alive. Self-compassion is crucial – connecting with yourself to ask 'What has happened to me or what is happening to me?' This is more helpful than saying 'What is wrong with me – why can't I just move on?'
The feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, grief, feeling low, and disbelief (how has this happened to me?' 'Did this happen to me? 'Am I making it up or exaggerating it?') associated with trauma are entirely normal and need support, care and kindness. Processing these emotions with a professional and finding healthy ways to self-soothe can help.
Finding a quiet space (if that is possible) can help us notice what is happening internally and consider what we need right now that would help.
Sometimes our response to something in the present is caused by what has happened to us in the past – we may find relationships difficult and fear getting emotionally close to others for fear of being wounded, rejected and abandoned again. We may also lose our voice and feel that we have nothing to say that anyone would listen to. This can lead to us deferring to other people that we perceive know better than we do. We may also find that we either internalise or deny anger or it becomes explosive.
We may use alcohol or drugs or self-harm as a way of coping. This can lead to further shame and a sense of disconnect from ourselves. There may be an initial sense of relief but this does not last.
Considering professional support
It may be that we need professional support – we can start by contacting our GP and/or reaching out to a counsellor.
Can we recover?
It is important not to minimise our experience. It matters and always will – recovery is possible - it's not easy and we may well be left with some internal and physical scars. However, with the right support, we can work through our grief and learn coping strategies that enable us to manage life with self-compassion and kindness.