Trauma, Traumatized, Triggered?
There’s often a lot of confusion around the definition of trauma. What is it? What does it look like? Have you experienced it? Can you overcome it or recover from it? Does it mean that there is something wrong with you?
Although it has been researched for years, it is a fairly new concept in our society. I don’t think we talk about it enough and there is a lot of fear and shame around it, which is understandable. I can probably write pages and pages on trauma, and people have! The purpose of this blog is to give you a snapshot picture of trauma, and how there is hope!
I am going to provide some resources at the end if you are interested in learning more (there are different types of trauma and some researchers dive into further details of what trauma)
So what is trauma?
Trauma is any physiological (change to the chemicals in our body or brain) and psychological (changes to our thoughts and feelings) that occur due to an event or events. Trauma usually occurs when our sense of safety is threatened. A traumatic event can be any situation that makes our body feel unsafe – any event that threatens our survival. This basically means that any event or situation that makes us feel unsafe or impacts our mental, emotional and physical safety can be grouped under trauma. This can include: verbal abuse, neglect, car accident, a fire, childhood abuse, domestic violence, being constantly shamed or put down, violence … the list goes on. There are different forms of trauma but for simplicity reasons, trauma in a general sense is going to be explored further.
So what does that mean?
By this definition, it is safe to say that most of us experienced some sort of unsafe situation (or situations) in our lifetime. If we haven’t, our ancestors sure have in some way. Their trauma can be passed down chemically from generation to generation through our DNA.
One of the reasons behind this is because our brain releases a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is kind of like a messenger. It travels from our brain to the rest of our body. Its role is to prepare us against any potential or imagined threat or danger. It tells the rest of our body that it’s time to get out of there, or to fight against the danger. It can also put us in a state where we freeze or even faint (so it looks like we are dead to the threat).
I want to stress that this automatically happens. Our brain automatically does this – we don’t really choose what to do when we are in danger. If we had a choice, then we are going to be standing there and taking time to think during a dangerous situation. We don’t have time to think – we need to protect ourselves as soon as possible!
So cortisol is actually pretty useful and it fires from our brain into our body to protect us! This is going to be especially useful in the olden days where our ancestors had to survive against wild animals and life-threatening danger.
Modern day threats
Today, a threat can look like doing a presentation, going on a bus, being shamed by our parents or family, being verbally abused and much more. Sometimes our brains can also create dangerous situations. Our brains can be very creative. There’s a reason we react the way we react (anger, fear, worry, violence) because our safety is somehow being threatened, or we may think it is (in some situations).
Long-term effects to our body, brain, and life!
So let’s say we went through a tough situation that made us feel unsafe in some way. If we come across a situation that is similar to the previous unsafe situation, then we may react in the same way we did when we previously felt unsafe.
Cortisol is automatically going to release into the body again and prepare your body to fight, run away, freeze, or faint. This usually is called a trigger. Triggers can be useful because our brain remembered that we went through a similar situation before, so beware! These triggers can help us survive.
But, the constant or frequent release of cortisol can have long-lasting effects on our brain and body. Cortisol can actually lead to changes in our brain structure and changes to our organs. This is one of the reasons why taking care of our mental health is so important … our mental health effects our physical health too! Our brain and body communicate. This is also one of the reasons why recovery can take time.
Anyways, going back to triggers …
Although triggers can help us survive against future danger, triggers can become harmful for our growth, mental health, and well-being. Let’s say we came across a lion and obviously in that situation our automatic reaction is to run, fight, freeze, or faint. Our body did us good! But let’s say the next day we came across a teddy bear that looked like a lion and our body has the same automatic reaction (just an example). Then we try to avoid that teddy bear entirely. We start to think about lions and teddy bears that look like lions. This also happens automatically. Our body and brain are trying to protect us automatically, even though logically we may believe that the teddy bear isn’t harmful at all, it still automatically reminds our brain of that real lion in some ways. We may continue to feel unsafe.
We may change our lifestyle because we want to avoid those triggers at all cost. This can be a normal reaction for people! But, that shift in behaviour and thoughts can start to really impact our mental health, the relationships we have with others, with ourselves, and our daily activities. That’s where counselling can come in handy.
Resiliency and Hope
Experiencing trauma can be a normal part of life. It’s normal to come across difficult or unsafe situations. Our reactions to those situations are completely normal too. Our bodies and brain are designed to help us survive. That is such a beautiful thing.
But, the lasting effects of trauma, as described above, can become harmful for us if our body and brain are struggling to find a sense of safety after the traumatic event/events. Trauma can effect how we see ourselves, our relationships with others, our family life, work life, school life, and even just daily functioning. And there is hope. We can overcome this. We can build safety. It takes work and time. Change doesn’t happen overnight. This traumatic event/events impacted our brain and bodies. It has changed it chemically through the frequent release of cortisol (depending on how many times you felt unsafe).
Your journey – Take a look at your tool belt
We may have noticed that some people bounce back from traumatic situations quite fast, while others take longer to recover. A lot of this depends on how big and useful our tool belt of skills is to cope with stress and traumatic events, and our ability to create safety. How do we take care of ourselves during these times, and afterwards? Some people have been building skills since they were born by watching people cope, learning what works for them through experience, and by reading and educating themselves. Others haven’t had that privilege of learning skills to manage traumatic situations. That is not your fault. You do have a choice now, in building that tool belt of skills. It’s not too late. A fancy word used to describe this process of coping with and recovering from trauma is called post-traumatic growth.
How do I create my tool belt or add to it?
This is where counselling can help. A counsellor can explore with you where you are at in your process. We may carry shame around our experiences, but a counsellor can help you release some of that shame and unpack it. A counsellor can help you process those experiences. A counsellor can also help you learn ways to manage the triggers and trauma, so you don’t constantly feel unsafe in your mind and body.
Talking to someone (who you trust and feel safe with) about your experiences can be helpful. This can help with unpacking some of the shame.
Reading books about trauma and educating yourself can also be a great way to learn about your experiences.
Learning what works for you to feel safe again can be a great way to recover from trauma. This may include mindfulness techniques, learning how to stabilize your body and mind, and changing your thoughts and perspectives around the traumatic events.
Sometimes we are unsure of what works and what doesn’t. Visiting a counsellor and exploring can be helpful.
Processing and recovering takes time. We are human. Our bodies reacted to help us survive, but now these triggers may be hindering different parts of our lives and our well-being. We encourage you to have some compassion through this process. You are not alone.
Book an appointment with Revival Counselling Services to gain further support. We are here to support you.
Paige, M., DeVore, J., Chang, C. Y., & Whisenhunt, J. (2017). The trauma-competent clinician: A qualitative model of knowledge, skills, and attitudes supporting Adlerian-based trauma psychotherapy. The Journal of Individual Psychology, 73(1), 8-37.
Sperry, L. (2016). Trauma, neurobiology, and personality dynamics: A primer. The Journal of Individual Psychology, 72(3), 161-167.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.