James woke suddenly in the middle of the night. His heart was pounding in his chest and his sheets were tangled around him. His nightmare had seemed so real that at first he couldn’t figure out where he was. His accident has occurred years ago, but lately he had been having frequent dreams about it.
Ali had been in several bad relationships throughout college- usually with older men. She is beginning to realize that her desperate need for affection from men comes from the time she watched her father walk out on her mother. Her memory of that night and the pain she felt hasn’t faded a bit.
DEFINITIONS & KEY THOUGHTS
Trauma is considered to be any situation that shakes one to the core and is beyond their control. Examples of trauma include childhood abuse, rape, abortion, a car accident, domestic violence, or many other types of events.
Whatever the situation may be, a trauma could ultimately lead to mental disorders or even suicide. Recovery from a trauma is often slow and commonly includes flashbacks.
Traumas are able to influence people in various negative ways (i.e., making unhealthy decisions) without even being remembered. They can overwhelm a person’s usual adaptations or coping mechanisms to life.
When an individual undergoes a trauma, each component of their ordinary response to danger continues to occur in an altered state for a long time after any actual danger is over. Individuals experience profound and lasting changed in their psychological arousal, memory, cognition, and emotion. For a long time after the trauma occurs, the individual does not feel safe.
Symptoms of trauma include:
- intense fear
- panic disorders
- attachment disorders
- loss of control
- threat of annihilation.
Sometimes panic, anger, flashbacks, and anxiety contribute to an individual being diagnosed with having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Traumatic reactions occur when the individual is exposed to a situation that threatens the wellbeing or life of that individual or another. In such situations when an individual is unable to either escape or resist, their system of self-defense becomes disorganized and overwhelmed. As a result, a traumatized individual becomes hyper-vigilant and behaves as if their nervous system has been disconnected from the present.
Traumatic memories become encoded in abnormal forms of memory that break spontaneously into one’s consciousness in the form of nightmares and flashbacks. In such occurrences, the traumatic event is not just remembered but is completely relived. Traumatic memories are not verbal linear narratives, but instead can have a frozen wordless quality. They are deeply imprinted due to the circulation of high levels of stress hormones like adrenaline.
Although deep, traumatic memories can also be suppressed. Together the intrusion and constriction of the memory form a dynamic that doesn’t allow the individual to resolve their experience or achieve balance. The following are the two major categories of trauma:
- Invasion trauma. This type of trauma occurs when something damaging happens to an individual. Emotional invasion occurs when and individual feels shamed, blamed, or criticized (either verbally or nonverbally). Physical invasion occurs when an individual is physically abused or when an individual witnesses the physical abuse of another. Sexual invasion occurs when an individual is sexually touched or penetrated in a way that disrespects their personal boundaries or leaves them feeling violated and confused.
- Abandonment trauma. This type of trauma occurs when damage is created as a result of something not happening to an individual (i.e., feeling loved, nurtured, and protected). Abandonment trauma can be more difficult to pinpoint because the individual does not know what they are missing, because they have never had it. Emotional abandonment occurs when care, attention, nurture, love, and affirmation are not given. The result of such abandonment trauma is profound loneliness. Physical abandonment occurs when an individual’s basic needs for shelter, food, and clothing are not met. Other types of physical abandonment occur when individuals are not touched enough, or do not receive enough modeling or information regarding physical self-care. Sexual abandonment occurs when individuals are not educated or modeled healthy sexuality. The lack of correct or adequate information can have disastrous results.
Note that the above categories often overlap; damage in one area of an individual’s life can have a great effect on another area.
If an individual exhibits behavior that suggests past trauma that they cannot remember or attach to any event, a very lengthy treatment may be necessary for them.
Although traumatic events can be quite terrible and the emotional damage caused from them can be quite overwhelming, healing is possible. A traumatized individual will require comfort, acceptance, reassurance, and a nonjudgmental listening ear. They must feel safe and have an understanding that they way they are feeling is completely normal for what they have been through.
The following action steps can help individuals to overcome trauma:
1. Understand the nature of the trauma. If it can be remembered, talk about what happened. Do so gently and do not allow for any denial. Although the memories are likely very painful, discuss them with honesty. Try talking with a counselor or in a support group and choose what is right for you. Understand that you didn’t deserve or cause what has happened to you and that depending on the type of trauma you have experienced, you may have to make some changes in your life in order to not be hurt again.
2. Express the feelings. Express whatever your true feelings are regarding your traumatic experience. Whether it be anger, grief, or sadness, let it out.
3. Know that you will heal. Your healing will come with time and help. Engage in the process of healing either through group or individual counseling.
4. Know that you will have victory. You will not only heal from your trauma, but you will triumph over it. Think about the positive strengths that will come out of the healing process. Know that in time you will be able to forgive and will be set free from the pain. Most importantly, realize that someday you will be able to help and comfort those who have experienced similar traumas.