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Understanding Trauma

In a state of Trauma

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, assault or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea”. We often think of psychological trauma as being caused by a single event and so we will talk about the traumatic event however the event itself is not the whole story.
The manifestation of trauma is unique to every individual and being exposed to a traumatic event does not automatically mean you will become traumatised. It is also worth mentioning that a significant traumatic event is not always necessary to result in an individual experiencing trauma, the imminent threat of it happening can also cause trauma. Let’s take an example of domestic abuse for instance. A survivor of domestic abuse who has been subjected to ongoing emotional abuse can become traumatised over time. There may be a threat of physical violence, the perpetrator may display threatening nonverbal behavior but may never hit the person. In this instance the trauma can be associated with the recurrent threat of physical violence or the coercive and controlling behavior exhibited over time rather than the actual act of physical violence itself.

A significant event or events don’t have to happen in order for a person to experience trauma, so then you might ask, what causes trauma a major event has not caused it? First, lets talk about fear. Fear is a distressing emotion which can be triggered by something that is real or imagined. Think of fear like an alarm system. It alerts us to threats in our environment so we can respond effectively and keep ourselves safe. When there is a risk to our safety, our brain alerts us to danger. What can make the experience particularly traumatising is when the feeling of fear becomes overwhelming and is accompanied by sense of helplessness, or feeling powerless. When we feel this way, our body can become rigid. We may even experience physical symptoms such as difficulty moving, speaking or breathing.

Although the fear response is normal, when in a heightened state, the fear circuit can malfunction or become stuck which in turn may cause a person to experience the common symptoms associated with trauma. When a traumatic event is experienced, certain structures of the brain disengage as a means of coping because traumas are intense and the brain goes into survival mode. As a result, the traumatic memory is not stored like a normal memory. It is instead stored in an isolated, fragmented state. When this memory is triggered by something in the external world, it reminds the brain of this negative association and alerts the brain to danger even in instances where there is no imminent danger.
So once in a state of trauma how does one find their way to recovery? Firstly, being able to make sense of traumatic events can be beneficial in recovery. Making sense is not solely about exploring the immediate events, it is also about deriving a constructive meaning of what has happened. Mary Main who studies attachment patterns in early childhood discovered something quite interesting. When we talk about attachment we are talking about those earlier bonds that we develop in infancy and early childhood that influence our internal emotional worlds. Mary concluded that what mattered most in the development of these attachments was how a person constructed meaning from what happened, or in simpler terms, how a person makes sense of their childhood experiences. Further explained, how we negotiated childhood experiences largely shapes our adult lives and how we come to manage and negotiate traumatic experiences.

M Main & R Goldwyn (1985) Adult attachment classification system, unpublished manuscript
The American Psychological Association, March 10, 2016, Trauma Definition, retrieved from http://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/
The Good Therpay Organisation, February 14, 2018 , Trauma Recovery: Unlinking Fear and Danger in the Brain

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