PSYCHOLOGY - THERAPY - COUNSELLING

Trauma

Trauma is perhaps the most avoided, ignored, denied, misunderstood, and untreated cause of human suffering. Although it is the source of tremendous distress and dysfunction, people often take a long time to find courage and seek professional help. Trauma is not an ailment or a disease, but the by-product of an instinctively instigated, altered state of consciousness. Often we see it as a necessary and automatic response of our nervous system in moments of great distress. We enter this altered state—let us call it “survival mode”—when we perceive that our lives are being threatened. If we are overwhelmed by the threat and are unable to successfully defend ourselves, we can become frozen in a constant state of survival. In other words, our perception is perceiving the world in way that everything appears to be a threat. This highly aroused state is designed solely to enable short-term defensive actions in order to protect and sustain life. When left untreated over time, it begins to form the symptoms of trauma. These symptoms can invade every aspect of our lives. They are powerful enough to distort the very fabric of our life as a whole.

In a way sense, most of us have experienced trauma, either directly or indirectly. Perhaps the most important thing to understand about trauma is that people, especially children, can be overwhelmed by what we usually regard as common, everyday events. Until recently, our understanding of trauma was limited to the experiences of “shell-shocked” soldiers and victims of catastrophic accidents and injuries. However, this narrow view does not encompass the whole truth. Over time, a series of so-called minor mishaps can have the same damaging effect on a person as major traumatic events such as war or rape.

Factors in threat response

Individual’s age – children are more vulnerable
History of trauma – previous history of trauma can be contributing or hindering factor
Family dynamics and relational patterns – primal experiences of safety in early life contribute towards our neuroception
Genetic factors – experience of trauma is locked in our DNA and passed down over three generations

Causes of trauma

1. Events that are almost always traumatic, no matter who experiences them:

– war

– severe childhood emotional, physical, or sexual abuse

– experiencing or witnessing violence

– rape or assault

– catastrophic injuries and illnesses

– loss of a loved one

2. Unexpected events that can be traumatic under certain circumstances:

– Self-isolating; COVID-19 lockdown; Global pandemic

–  minor automobile accidents (even fender benders), especially those that cause whiplash

– invasive medical and dental procedures, particularly when performed on children who are restrained or anesthetized (the use of ether increases the potential for trauma) – even adults who rationally know that these are helpful may experience certain procedures (like a pelvic exam) as an attack

– falls and other so-called minor injuries, especially when children or elderly people are involved (for example, a child falling off a bicycle)

– natural disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, floods, volcanoes)

– illness, especially with high fever

– accidental poisoning

– abandonment (being left alone), especially for young children and babies

– prolonged immobilization, especially for children (casting, extended splinting, traction)

– exposure to extreme heat or cold (especially for children and babies)

– sudden loud noises (especially for children and babies)

– birth (for both mother and infant)

Symptoms

Typically, the first symptoms to develop after an overwhelming event are:

The most common signs are physical - increased heart rate, difficult breathing (rapid, shallow, panting, etc.), cold sweats, tingling, muscular tension - and mental - increase in thoughts, racing thoughts, worry.

Constriction alters breathing, muscle tone, and posture.

An automatic separation of awareness from physical reality, which protects us from the impact of escalating arousal. If a life-threatening event continues, dissociation protects us from the pain of death. It is a common means of enduring experiences that are, at the moment, beyond endurance.

In this case the disconnection is between the person and the memory of or feelings about a particular event (or series of events). We may deny that an event occurred, or we may act as though it was unimportant.

If hyperarousal is the nervous system’s accelerator, immobility is its brake. When both of these states occur at the same time, a feeling of overwhelming helplessness results. This is not the ordinary sense of helplessness that affects all of us from time to time. It is a feeling of being completely immobilized and powerless to act. This is not a perception, belief, or trick of the imagination. It is real. The body feels paralyzed.

The following are other symptoms that tend to surface concurrently with or shortly after trauma or much later on.

The final group of symptoms includes those that generally take longer to develop.

hypervigilance (being “on guard” at all times)
intrusive imagery or “flashbacks”
extreme sensitivity to light and sound
hyperactivity, restlessness
fear of going crazy
avoidance behaviour (avoiding certain circumstances that remind us of previous traumas)
frequent anger or crying (do not take this personally; the person—especially if a child— needs your support)
inability to love, nurture, or bond with other individuals
exaggerated or diminished sexual activity
exaggerated emotional and startled reactions to noises, quick movements, etc.
nightmares and night terrors
abrupt mood swings (rage reactions, temper tantrums, shame)
reduced ability to deal with stress (easily and frequently stressed out)
difficulty sleeping
panic attacks, anxiety, and phobias
mental blankness or spaciness
attraction to dangerous situations
abrupt mood swings
amnesia and forgetfulness
fear of dying or having a shortened life
excessive shyness
diminished emotional responses
inability to make commitments
immune system and certain endocrine problems, such as thyroid dysfunction or psychosomatic illnesses—particularly headaches, neck and back problems, asthma, digestive distress, spastic colon, severe premenstrual syndrome, and eating disorders
chronic fatigue or very low physical energy
depression, feelings of impending doom
feeling detached, alienated, and isolated
reduced ability to formulate plans and carry them through

The symptoms of trauma can be stable (ever-present) or unstable (come and go) or they may remain hidden for decades. Usually, symptoms do not occur individually but in clusters. They often grow increasingly complex over time, becoming less and less connected with the original trauma experience. This makes it increasingly difficult to trace the symptoms to their cause and easier to deny the importance of the traumatic event in one’s life.

The symptoms of trauma are internal wake-up calls. If we learn how to listen to them, to increase both physical and mental awareness, we can begin to heal our traumas.

Healing and transformation

Transformation looks very different from symptomatic relief. When one successfully heals trauma, a fundamental shift occurs in one’s being as the nervous system regains its capacity for self-regulation and co-regulation. One experiences greater spontaneity, allowing us to relax, enjoy, and live life more fully.

Some methods involve the process of discharging excess survival energy by completing the arousal cycle of fight or flight response. In order to do that they can successfully uncouple the fear from the immobolisation and find a way to release the freeze state. Other methods are more relational in nature and they focus on the gradual reexperiencing of safety and security while being in a therapeutic relationship.