What is trauma? Trauma is experienced in many ways by the many people who live with it. Trauma is a word that people currently use to describe everything from horrendous life events all the way through to everyday aggravations and challenges. Yet trauma is real and life changing for people who live with the effects of trauma in their daily lives. It can be very hard, very exhausting, frightening or overwhelming. It can be defeating, it can be confusing.
A book that can help you learn more about trauma and all the ways it shows up is The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk.
Truly traumatizing experiences are the mental/emotional/physical equivalent of eating an eight course meal all at once and then not being able to digest it. Trauma is too much to digest at the time of the original experience.
Trauma is often diagnosed as PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a multi-faceted experience in which the past intrudes into the present, in ways that are overwhelming or damaging to a person’s daily life. The experience can be one that is too intense to bear, or the opposite: numbing. People often, but not always, have nightmares, flashbacks or disturbing memories of painful past events, which interfere with sleep, daily life and relationships, with self and others. When a person feels numb, there is usually a level of depression.
Trauma isolates and distances people from the feeling of having a “regular” life, disturbs a healthy sense of self, undermines happiness, affects relationships and families, and much more.
Trauma can be built up through many repeated insults to a person’s wellbeing, such as watching a sibling get hit frequently, or through one or more overwhelming event, such as a car crash, rape, a burglery, ongoing abuse. Trauma can develop from direct stress to a person or “vicariously.”
Often, one trauma has been layered over by another. This may be viewed as “complex trauma.” Examples are, when one trauma is followed by another different one, such as repeatedly being physically abused, followed by an accident. Or, experiencing trauma in hospital, then losing a job. Multiple crises or one stress repeated over years can become complex trauma.
It is necessary to discuss such experiences with a trained professional, in order to determine if what you are suffering is trauma. In the end though, if you are suffering from past events, then whatever anyone wants to call it, whether it’s diagnosed as “trauma” or not, you deserve to receive help and support in order to recover.
Healing and recovery are possible your whole life long!
What can we concretely do in therapy when memories of such life events return? The steps to recovery involve having a skilled therapist. We understand now, through brain research, somatic therapies and decades of counselling practice, that a multi-faceted approach is needed for healing from trauma. Being able to narrate your experience is a first step. Also, attending to the body is very important. What the body tells us, in sensations, tensions, and emotional pain are very important in understanding an individual’s trauma. Feelings of shame are often attached to old beliefs we were taught to adopt early in life, such as “I’m not worthy” or “It’s my fault.”
Any therapy for trauma must help a client work slowly and gradually, gently, in order to approach painful memories, feelings and beliefs with a sense of safety. In sessions, the steps toward recovery are learned one by one and are repeated until they become integrated.
Over time, a client gradually becomes more adept at various ways of interacting with the “traumatic material”. The purpose of these practices is for the person who has experienced trauma to both feel and release the pent up emotions and memories of the original experience, and to integrate the painful experience, so that it no longer intrudes into their life in unbearable ways. This takes time and is seldom done without support and regular counselling.
Often, various creative processes can aid in healing from trauma, such as drawing, painting, writing, music, recording and de-coding dreams, walking and body movement.
A client with trauma can learn to feel the flooding to some manageable extent, or can connect to the numbed-out self. They can learn some practical skills for relating to the trauma. Once these steps become more familiar, a person living with trauma begins to choose to intervene for themselves, can work with their breath, be present to memories, emotions and start to name them. These steps are the road of healing.