Psychological trauma is a reaction followed by an event that our nervous system perceives as life-threatening to ourselves or others that involves a complex debilitation of coping abilities—emotional, cognitive, physical, spiritual, and social. Trauma may occur as a single occurrence, a series of occurrences, or a combination of occurrences. Collective trauma refers to trauma that affects a group or a region.
A traumatic event shocks and disrupts all the body’s processes:
- Cognitive: Trauma impairs one’s ability to interpret information and make sound decisions.
- Emotional: Embarrassment, remorse, anxiety, rage, and pain are all present.
- Physical: Muscles, joints, digestion and metabolism, temperature, sleep, immune system, and so on are all affected.
- Spiritual: Trauma influences our worldview, the lenses through which we perceive reality (typically as dangerous), and our perception and sense of life, culture, and the environment.
- Social: Trauma has an impact on relationships with partners, families, friends, co-workers, and strangers (because it affects so many people so profoundly, it has an impact on society’s structures).
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Developmental Trauma
PTSD is a set of panic responses that arise when a trauma survivor’s nervous system remains on high alert to protect them from further pain. Reminders of painful experiences are perceived as a threat by the survivor. Developmental trauma occurs early in life and disrupts normal sequences of brain development. Other facets of development, such as mental, physical, cognitive, and social development, are affected as a result. The brain grows from the ground up in the first few years of life. The lower sections of the brain are in charge of functions related to survival and stress response. Executive tasks, such as making sense of what you are doing or practising moral judgement, are handled by the upper sections of the brain.
The development of the upper brain is dependent on the development of the lower brain. In other words, the brain is designed to grow from the bottom up, like a ladder. When stress responses are consistently triggered in an infant, toddler, or young child over a prolonged period of time (typically due to chronic neglect or abuse), the brain’s sequential development is disrupted. The ladder progresses, but there are some missing foundational steps.
Our memories are stored in explicit and implicit ways.
- Explicit memories are those that are expressed verbally and are consciously remembered. We are aware of the facts and can remember them in a logical order—a tale (event), people we know, a specific location, and so on.
- Traumatic memories are implicit (autonomic). These are held in a jumbled, unconscious state. They have no sense of order or even of interconnectedness. They can, however, be easily triggered in the present moment by sensory inputs, causing us to have vivid memories of something that happened to us in the past.
Recovering from trauma
- Recognise that you have been through a distressing or frightening experience and that you will have a reaction to it.
- Accept that you will not feel your normal self for a period of time, but that it will also eventually pass.
- Remind yourself daily that you are managing – try not to get angry or frustrated with yourself if you are not able to do things as well or efficiently as normal.
- Don’t overuse alcohol or drugs to help you cope.
- Avoid making major decisions or big life changes until you feel better.
- Gradually confront what has happened – don’t try to block it out.
- Don’t bottle up your feelings – talk to someone who can support and understand you.
- Try to keep to your normal routine and stay busy.
- Don’t go out of your way to avoid certain places or activities. Don’t let the trauma confine your life but take your time to get back to normal.
- When you feel exhausted, make sure you set aside time to rest.
- Make time for regular exercise – it helps cleanse your body and mind of tension.
- Let your family and friends help you by telling them what you need, such as time out or someone to talk to.
- Relax – use relaxation techniques such as yoga, breathing or meditation, or do things you enjoy, such as listening to music or gardening.
- Express your feelings as they arise – talk to someone about your feelings or write them down.
- When the trauma brings up memories or feelings, try to confront them. Think about them, then put them aside. If it brings up other past memories, try to keep them separate from the current problem and deal with them separately.
Traumatic stress can cause very strong reactions in some people and may become chronic (ongoing). If you are unable to handle the intense feelings or physical sensations book a session with a counsellor at Halcyon Counselling Clinic and begin your healing journey today.