The Pain of Trauma
Sudden, distressing loss, experiencing or witnessing violence or abuse and physical injury can all lead to psychological injuries in human beings. Recurring childhood abuse and neglect can also cause serious emotional wounding such as Complex PTSD. Frightening experiences varying from car accidents, verbal, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, workplace bullying or witnessing terminal illness, death or violence can all trigger traumatic reactions. Traumatic responses are characterized by symptoms ranging from prolonged shock, feeling numb emotionally, going ‘blank’, feeling flat or depressed, to more intrusive symptoms such as chronic anxiety, fear, insomnia, recurring memories of the traumatic event, nightmares and anger. Individual reactions to trauma are unique, and people may experience one or multiple symptoms at different times and in response to a variety of stressors or triggers – IE situations that feel or seem similar to the original injury, though are usually less threatening, and provoke a traumatic reaction. Trauma undermines a person’s ability to live in the present or to experience peace of mind or contentment. Trauma can also cause relationship problems due to 1. ongoing states of distress that damage communication and intimacy or, 2. the traumatized person choosing abusive or unreliable partners who are reminiscent of the individual who hurt them in the first place, also known as Trauma Bonding. Trauma, including post traumatic stress, are forms of complicated anxiety that get ‘trapped’ in the body and mind of the sufferer. Traumatic anxiety is a response to events that feel so overwhelming that the mind cannot cope and attempts to bury or split off traumatic memories deep into the subconscious. Unfortunately this ‘solution’ doesn’t work as these buried, repressed memories can’t heal, and continue to resurface in response to triggers in the present, such as stress or situations that are in some way reminiscent of the original trauma, e.g. a place, a person, an odor, a sound, etc.
Traumatic memories may appear as Flashbacks, where the individual feels like they are living the distressing experience over again. Flashbacks create fear and disorientation, and may be accompanied by memories, feelings or images associated with the original trauma. Flashbacks can occur while a person is awake – causing panic, or asleep – causing nightmares.
Traumatic memories can also cause Dissociation – a feeling of being numb, ‘spaced out’ or disconnected from one’s surroundings. When traumatic reactions are triggered it can lead to a Fight, Flight, Freeze, Collapse or Fawning response, which is a biologically wired reaction to a life threatening situation, such as running away from an attacker. Unfortunately traumatic memory doesn’t know how to distinguish between a past threat and a current, more harmless situation, so the sufferer re-experiences frightening memories – conscious or unconscious – that feel like the original threat is happening all over again.
People who experience Complex PTSD – aka Relationship Trauma – may suffer from the afore-mentioned PTSD symptoms, plus suffer from low self worth, identity confusion and relationship difficulties. Additionally, people who develop Complex PTSD tend to experience more emotionally intrusive symptoms – aka flooding – whereas PTSD tends to involve an overuse of avoidant coping. So emotional containment strategies are highly indicated in C-PTSD therapy.
How to Take Back Control from Trauma – Self Help Strategies
Although reoccurring traumatic anxiety or post traumatic stress are best dealt with in psychotherapy with a skilled counselor, the following strategies can help you feel less overwhelmed:
1. Become familiar with your own unique early warning signs of trauma, including feeling spaced out, numb, disconnected from others or your physical surroundings, shame, intense fear, or like you are living in the past.
2. Once you detect any of these early warning signs, direct your attention to breathing normally from your belly and focusing on the physical details of the here and now. Notice the details of the location you are in, the colors, shapes, furniture, buildings, landmarks, trees, etc
3. Use grounding strategies to help yourself stay present. Direct your attention to feeling your feet touching the ground, your body sitting in a chair, placing your hand on a wall, etc.
4. Use your thought processes to remind yourself that you are living in the present, and can’t be harmed again like you were during the original trauma. Harness your memory by recalling that you are safe now, and that the threatening events of the past are over, even though you temporarily feel out of control. Tell yourself that you are a strong adult who has survived the traumatic event(s), and can take care of yourself like you’ve been doing for many years.
5. After you are feeling calmer, identify the traumatic trigger(s), be they interactions with others, negative core beliefs, or environmental antecedents, and work towards avoiding, reducing or eliminating them in future.
Psychotherapy and Trauma Counseling in a Nutshell
Unfortunately for trauma sufferers, self help strategies are often not enough, and require the help of a skilled trauma therapist. Therapy focuses on overcoming traumatic responses by gaining mastery over them. A trauma therapist teaches people how to stop traumatic responses in their tracks by:
1/ Increasing feelings of personal psychological and physical safety
2/ Becoming less reactive to trauma triggers by learning how to contain distress while calming the body and the mind simultaneously
3/ Gradually and progressively facing traumatic memories while effectively neutralizing them at the same time.
4/ With Complex – PTSD, negative core beliefs regarding self worth need to be challenged and reframed repeatedly using reality testing strategies.
Techniques that are used to overcome panic and phobias, such as Hypnosis and Guided Imagery Desensitization – where relaxation responses are paired with traumatic memories to reduce their negative impact – can be very helpful in overcoming trauma responses.
Need help breaking free from trauma? Visit my Trauma Counseling web page
Counseling is available by Video around the world.
Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counselor, Registered Clinical Counselor (BC), specializes in recover from Trauma, Anxiety, Scapegoating/Bullying, Low Self Esteem, Depression, Grief and Addictive Behaviors. I look forward to hearing from you and helping you achieve the life you want and deserve!
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