What is trauma?
Trauma is the emotional response someone has to an extremely negative event. Trauma is essentially something that can be defined as an event or situation that causes you severe distress. Trauma can happen to anyone at any given time and it can happen for a variety of reasons such as experiencing or witnessing an event or events that involved:
Actual or threatened death or serious injury
A threat to the physical integrity of self or others
Fear, helplessness or horror
What are examples of events that cause trauma?
While many sources of trauma are physically violent in nature, others are psychological. Some common sources of trauma include:
Severe illness or injury
The death of a loved one
Witnessing an act of violence
Trauma is often but not always associated with being present at the site of a trauma-inducing event.
It is also possible to sustain trauma after witnessing something from a distance.
What are some of the symptoms of trauma?
Although the symptoms of trauma are entirely subjective, there are many common symptoms that individuals often experience after experiencing a traumatic event. Furthermore, it is also possible for individuals who have experienced trauma to be asymptomatic for weeks, months or even years after the event. The following diagram depicts some of the most common symptoms of trauma experienced by individuals:
What happens to the brain & body when we experience trauma?
According to McLaughlin, if the brain registers an overwhelming trauma, then it can essentially block that memory in a process called dissociation—or detachment from reality. The brain will attempt to protect itself from experiencing the traumatic event which is normal but this can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms and the brain and nervous system continuously living in the 'fight or flight' mode.
Dissociation causes a lack of connection in a person's thoughts, memory and/or sense of identity and can cause the individual to try and 'run' from the memory of the traumatic event and the consequential emotional responses.
The same way the body can wall-off an abscess or foreign substance to protect the rest of the body, the brain can dissociate from an experience. In the midst of trauma, the brain may wander off and work to avoid the memory. However, not all psyches are alike, and what may be severe trauma for one person may not be as severe for another person.
Childhood development in relation to responses to trauma
If a child is raised in a loving home with good child development, they are more likely to process a traumatic event—such a natural disaster, war combat or abuse—better. However, if a child's psychological development had distrust, fear or abandonment, then they may be more likely to respond to a traumatic event with dissociative properties.
Containment was a notion first introduced by Bion (1962) and it describes how effective parenting can enable children/adults to best deal with unmanageable emotions.
• The infant projects the unmanageable feelings onto the primary care giver, who in turn reflects them back such that they become more tolerable for the infant.
• Continual process of hearing and absorbing cries of fear, anger, hunger and discomfort and responding accordingly comprises early experiences of containment.
The bottle of coke analogy
When we are experiencing trauma it can feel like the emotions associated with the trauma are explosive and this can cause us to avoid the processing of the trauma, especially if we did not experience adequate mirroring of how to deal with difficult emotions as a child. However, when dealing with trauma it is best to allow the trauma to be processed in small doses much like when a bottle of coke is fizzed up and we slowly open the lid to release the gas, so that it does not explode.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD occurs following a severely traumatic event or a series of events such as domestic violence and abuse. It seems that the nervous system is stuck in the fear response and does not come back to feeling safe.
The window of tolerance
"Window of Tolerance" a term coined by Dr. Dan Siegel is now commonly used to understand and describe normal brain/body reactions, especially following adversity. The concept suggests that we have an optimal arousal level when we are within the window of tolerance that allows for the ebb and flow (ups and downs of emotions) experienced by human beings. We may experience hurt, anxiety, pain, anger that brings us close to the edges of the window of tolerance but generally we are able to utilise strategies to keep us within this window. Similarly we may feel too exhausted, sad, or shut down but we generally shift out of this. Below is diagram explaining the window of tolerance.
PTSD sufferers have a reduced window of tolerance and instead move between hyper and hypo states with symptoms such as:
Re-living of the event- including images,sounds,emotions and physical sensations.
Hyper vigilance - always on red alert for danger
Severe anxiety and/or angry reactions
Feeling numb,depressed - experiencing memory loss
Avoidance of any triggers, isolation, low self-esteem
Why does PTSD develop?
PTSD develops because the trauma experience was so distressing, we want to avoid any reminder of it
Our brains don't process the experience into a memory, so it stays as a current problem instead of becoming a memory of a past event
Each time we are reminded of it the flashbacks mean we experience the trauma again as if it is happening in the present, this is very distressing, so we do our utmost to stop the flashback and avoid any further reminder of the event, so the event remains unprocessed
PTSD & Avoidance
PTSD can cause us to avoid anything that reminds us of the trauma which could be people, places and even thoughts which are likely to distress us. This avoidance helps prevent us from becoming distressed in the short-term, but keeps the problem going long-term. Avoidance also interferes with our every day lives.
Complex Trauma/Complex PTSD
Complex trauma is a term often used in relation to:
Those who have experienced multiple traumas
Those we have experienced trauma from a young age
Someone described as having Complex Trauma may particularly struggle with:
Relationship and trust issues
Suicidal ideation and self-harm
Extreme shame and guilt
What helps in the healing process of trauma?
Self-regulation is a big factor in healing from trauma or PTSD and this can be achieved through various techniques and exercises such as:
Noticing when you are triggered and what triggers you
Noticing how you are feeling in your body
Being curious-have i gone into my hyper place?
Have i dissociated or shut down in some way?
Developing your own practice for coming back into your window of tolerance such as:
Challenging negative thoughts
Challenging avoidance and staying with difficult feelings while learning to self-regulate
Coming into the present exercises (patting yourself on the arms, meditation, exercise, focusing on a specific item in the room and identifying physical characteristics of the item)
Developing self compassion and self-care
Developing a sense of home and community
Self Compassion & Kindness
Self compassion is a way of relating ourselves kindly and embracing ourselves as human beings, flaws and all. Research shows that when we give ourselves compassion we reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) and release oxytocin and opiates which are the feel good hormones released by the brain. Self compassion is treating ourselves as we would a good friend or loved one.
Kindness is an active stance that one takes towards self in the sense that you desire to soothe yourself into better feeling states and a sense of security and comfort. Below is a video that explains a little bit more about the benefits of self compassion and kindness to ourselves.
Mindfulness & Meditation
Mindfulness allows us to be with ourselves exactly as we are in the present moment. It helps us accept and recognise our suffering/emotions as well as allowing us to sit with it and ultimately process it and heal.
Reiki can help you become aware of the physical and emotional suffering caused by trauma as well as gently empowering us to process it. Reiki has helped me and many clients to process and heal trauma and PTSD. To book a reiki session, contact us.
Exercises to help with symptoms of trauma
The square breathing technique:
This technique is great for anxiety attacks and can help you to come back into the present moment as well as slow down your heart rate. You can adjust the length of time you inhale and exhale for to suit your needs. Below is the diagram of how to do the square breathing technique.
Visual development of compassionate self:
Imagine an image of a compassionate self, this could come in the form of:
A religious figure/angelic being
Or, anything that depicts the image of a compassionate force/being
What is the quality of their compassion?
Where can you feel it in your body?
Shut your eyes and ask them if they have anything to say to you?
Write it down.
You may chose to return to this image of the compassionate self whenever you are in need and complete the exercise again.
Creating a drawing/painting of yourself
This can help if you want to increase self compassion and kindness to yourself
Gather any art/craft supplies and create an image of yourself that makes you feel empowered and loved. It can help to keep this image somewhere that you visit frequently such as your bedroom as it can remind you to see yourself through this compassionate and kind lens. You can get as abstract and creative as you like!
Thank you for reading & many blessings to you!