Trauma and post-traumatic stress: A rare phenomena or a universal human experience?

Trauma and post-traumatic stress are most commonly understood in connection to experiences such as war, sexual abuse and natural disasters. When most of us hear of incidents like these, we feel for those who have endured them but are not always able to understand or appreciate what it must feel like. Our concept of trauma tends to be that it is something that has happened to other people, or that our trauma is somehow not as relevant or valid as the trauma of others. We simply do not have the knowledge or frames of reference needed to understand how the trauma of others relates to our own experiences.

Understanding Trauma

In order to explore the subject of trauma it is important to understand the impact it has on our minds and bodies, and how post traumatic stress can develop and grow. So what actually is trauma? Trauma can be described as a highly stressful experience which threatens an individual’s survival or sense of self, leaving a lasting imprint on their psyche. Trauma is connected to our deepest instinct as an animal, which is to survive. When our survival is threatened (or perceived to be), the part of the nervous system known as ‘sympathetic’ activates. The nervous system communicates with electrical signals, and when a threat is perceived a strong electrical charge is created to facilitate the necessary bio-chemical functions. This process activates the endocrine system, creating a release of hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline which increases our heart rate and blood pressure. Other effects include sending blood to the major muscle groups and away from the skin, increasing blood-glucose levels for additional energy, muscles tensing in preparation for action, shutting down the digestive system and immune system, and the primal part of the brain taking over (thus shutting down the part of our brain associated with rational thought and complex decision making known as the neo-cortex). Have you ever noticed that when you feel overwhelmed or threatened you cannot think clearly? This is why.

Fight, flight or freeze?

This ‘fight or flight’ response serves a purpose if are faced with a real, physical threat to our survival like a wild animal trying to kill us. We would make use of the additional adrenaline and oxygen intake to run to safety or to fight our way out of the situation. Having an active response helps us to dispel the electrical charge that was created within the nervous system, and after sufficient rest we should be able to process the traumatic event. However, if we simply do nothing because we are simply too scared or overwhelmed then the process of actively releasing the electrical charge is not actualised (also known as the ‘freeze’ response). The body’s natural mechanism for releasing this electrical charge is therefore disrupted and it becomes trapped within the nervous system. This build up of ‘nervous energy’ is what subsequently causes post-traumatic stress, which may potentially be the precursor for all psychological ‘disorders’ and illnesses including anxiety, depression, ADHD, bipolar and psychosis. It is my belief that these diagnoses fail to address the underlying root cause of the issue, leading to overmedication and insufficient therapeutic intervention.

Different types of trauma

The question you may ask is how someone who has not experienced trauma can develop one of these diagnoses? The answer comes by deepening our understanding of what experiences can be potentially traumatising for human beings (especially young children up until the age of around six or seven).

Listed below are the three main types of trauma:

  1. ‘Simple’ trauma: More or less single events i.e. an accident, natural disaster, medical operation, psycho-active substance misuse (can result in a diagnosis of simple PTSD)
  2. Chronic trauma: Accumulated single events i.e. accumulation of above incidents, war, being a hostage (can result in a diagnosis of complex PTSD)
  3. Interpersonal trauma: Experienced within close relationships such as emotional, physical and sexual abuse, neglect, betrayal. Usually starts when the person is young and is repeated throughout childhood (can result in a diagnosis of developmental trauma or complex PTSD)

Looking at these three types, our common understanding of trauma tends to come from the first two. However, on closer analysis it is evident that it is the third which is by far the most common. We can understand more about interpersonal trauma by looking at child development. Human beings have evolved in a way which makes children incredibly vulnerable and dependent on their caregivers in the first years of life. This makes children develop a high degree of sensitivity towards anything that may potentially threaten their survival. This could be a physical threat as previously described, but could also be a social threat such as a caregiver being aggressive towards them or neglecting them. It is the social threat to survival (real or perceived) which I believe to have been experienced by every individual at some point in their childhood to at least some degree.

This could be a whole range of things from being scolded by a parent, becoming lost and not being able to find a caregiver, being bullied or teased, being regularly ignored or neglected by a parent, being given no personal boundaries, witnessing aggression within the family or wider social group, feeling rejected by family or peers, or receiving criticism for getting a bad grade at school. How often this happens and the extent to which the ‘nervous energy’ is processed will seemingly determine the degree of post-traumatic stress that an individual will experience. This could mean that every single human being, you and everyone you know, will have at some point experienced interpersonal trauma and will be carrying some degree of post-traumatic stress. If we take this to be true, then what implications does it have for our sense of self and our ability to heal and grow?

Implications for overcoming trauma

One implication is that whatever diagnosis you or anyone you know has received from a doctor is not necessarily fixed and unchangeable. It could be seen to be an individuals own unique way of coping with their own unique experiences of trauma and post-traumatic stress. Although having a diagnosis may be really helpful, it may in some cases perpetuate a state of victimhood whereby an individual believes they are on some level inferior to others and feels powerless to make positive changes. It can also create a sense of permanence, as the diagnosis becomes part of their sense of self and gives some meaning to their lives which they did not feel before. In these examples diagnoses only provide temporary relief, and may lead to stagnation and resistance to change.

Another implication is the relationship between trauma and addiction, which is a form of coping mechanism. Dr Gabor Maté describes addiction as originating from a need to solve a deep-seated problem, often connected to early childhood trauma. Addiction is another almost universal phenomenon in modern culture, for reasons this article will hopefully be making clear. Here are some of our most common modern addictions: caffeine, alcohol, painkillers, opiates, cocaine, food (especially with high sugar and fat content), TV, smart phones, sex, work, adrenaline, shopping, gambling etc. What do all these things have in common? They all provide a temporary distraction from an undesired state of being, whether by stimulating the senses or by numbing them. Essentially we feel so uneasy with simply being with ourselves and our thoughts, emotions and feelings that we form various habits which help us to avoid them.

Potentially the most important implication is the potential for healing that is realised when we understand that trauma may be the root cause of all psychological illness. Why do so many people try so many different psychiatric drugs and never feel a sense of wholeness? Why do therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) provide temporary relief but no long-term contentment? Why do practices like meditation and mindfulness provide some degree of peace, but do not always allow us to heal at the deepest level? I believe it is because the root causes of our issues are not fully addressed, staying hidden beneath the depths of our consciousness and making us feel ‘crazy’ when they surface. This could also be the reason why on some level so many of us feel a sense of lack no matter what we do or what we consume, and why some of us may on some level feel defective and broken beyond repair.

Trauma informed therapies

So what do we do with this new insight? Have any therapies or practices actually been developed to help us to process our trauma and feel whole again? The answer is fortunately yes, and an awareness of the significance of trauma is becoming ever more widely spread. Many therapists from different disciplines are becoming ‘trauma informed’, and the work done by practitioners and authors such as Peter Levine, Bessel Van Der Volk and Gabor Maté are helping to spread the word to more and more people. Practices have been developed such as ‘Somatic Experiencing’ and ‘Tension & Trauma Release Exercises’ which engage the body’s natural mechanisms to deal with trauma and release post-traumatic stress. Other therapists utilise drama and art therapy to support this work, whereas others can help us process trauma simply with mindfulness and inquiry. What these practices have in common is that they all reconnect us to our body sensations or ‘felt sense’, which can become disconnected from the mind in the wake of trauma. Re-building this relationship helps us to process our feelings and emotions, and allows us to rebuild trust in the intelligence of our bodies to perform whatever functions are necessary. Ultimately these practices aim to help with the process of integration, which means bringing together the fractured and split parts of ourselves into a cohesive and functioning whole.

Mindfulness

One of the most useful practices that can prepare you for this work is mindfulness, which helps to keep you grounded in the ‘here and now’ of the present moment rather than getting lost in the ‘there and then’ of the past. There are lots of resources on mindfulness which can be really useful, however please be aware that some modern ‘mindfulness’ practices are actually visualisation techniques. Visualisation has its place, but it is a completely different practice. Mindfulness is deepening your awareness of the present moment as it is, not how you wish it to be. This means accepting and making peace with the actuality of what is, as opposed to resisting and rejecting it. This can help you work with trauma in a number of ways. Firstly it helps to anchor you in the present moment without becoming lost in past trauma, and allows you to be aware of whatever experience arises within the body without resistance. This process enables the body to utilise its instinctive intelligence to move in a way that allows the build up of ‘nervous energy’ to be discharged. This enables the ‘freeze’ state to thaw, which begins to release you from the cold grip of trauma and post-traumatic stress.

Do I feel ready to explore my own trauma?

For those who feel they want to begin to understand how their own experiences of trauma have impacted them, you may want to consider finding a practitioner who can support and guide you. However, this is not something to be approached lightly as reconnecting with trauma without the right guidance can lead to feeling overwhelmed and potentially becoming re-traumatised. It is essential that you find a competent therapist or practitioner who is able to guide you through every step of the healing process in a safe and responsible way. You must ultimately be able to trust them enough to expose the most vulnerable parts of yourself, which makes it essential to develop a strong therapeutic relationship. If at any time you get a strong sense that the practitioner cannot meet your needs then trust your intuition and consider looking elsewhere for support. You may also feel that the time is not right for you to reconnect with your trauma, which is ok too. This is not work that should be rushed and it takes time and dedication to work through. It can also be incredibly difficult to balance around a life of commitments and responsibilities. For those who do feel called to explore this part of themselves there are lot of online resources which which can help to guide you in the right direction (please find links at the bottom of the page).

Be the change you seek

I strongly believe the understanding of trauma and how to heal from it to be fundamental to our development both as individuals and as a society. It will help us to create a less judgemental attitude towards ourselves and others as we realise why so many people are suffering and struggling to contain their own emotional pain. As we become aware of own personal connection to trauma, we can begin the process of transforming into more whole, loving, and compassionate people. The more we do this, the more society itself will become more loving, compassionate and cooperative. Our modern society is not in a healthy state, and people are developing severe mental health issues from an increasingly early age. Something significant has got to change, and a growing awareness of the impact of trauma may be one of the key factors that can help our society transform for the good of us all.

Resources

Websites
http://www.traumaprevention.com
https://traumahealing.org

Books
Waking the Tiger – Peter Levine
The Body keeps the Score – Bessel Van Der Kolk
When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress – Gabor Maté

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