5 things to know about trauma

5 Things to know about trauma

Trauma and recovery have been a theme in my life – whether due to being a survivor of childhood abuse or other incidents in my adult life. Therefore, delving into the topic of trauma hits close to home for me.

Trauma is often seen as the exception, however, it is a human experience that most of us will experience in one form or the other during our lives. The Canadian Psychological Association states that about 76% of Canadians experience a traumatic event throughout their lifetime (Ameringen, Mancini & Boyle, 2008). There are still many misconceptions about trauma out there, so here are five things that I learned about trauma that everyone should know.

1. Trauma goes beyond events

When we speak about trauma, we often speak about one event or a series of events like a natural disaster, rape, or a car accident. These events are often clearly identifiable in our life stories. A less acknowledged fact is that trauma is more often associated with lasting conditions in one’s environment. My experience of trauma was due to lasting conditions rather than a single event – whether it was a dysfunctional family environment or being targeted by oppression. Reflecting on the experiences of my clients, I came to realize that most of them have experienced trauma due to enduring conditions in their environment.

What does lasting condition mean?

A child that grows up with abuse lives in an environment that is full of fear and insecurity. They are never truly safe. Their environment was likely threatening. This is an enduring condition and not a life-altering single event. Situations of domestic violence and social injustices like racism and oppression are also enduring conditions.

The relentless circumstances leave scars that are harder to pinpoint since we lack explicit memories of them. The trauma may just be identifiable through its symptoms like numbing, dissociation, anxiety, or substance use but we often don’t understand why we have them. While this can be confusing and frustrating, there is hope for healing whether the trauma is anchored in events or due to enduring conditions.

2. Trauma is different for everyone

One thing that people get confused about when it comes to trauma is that the event or the enduring condition itself doesn’t make the experience traumatic. Two people can go through the same event – one person may develop trauma, another person may not. Please note that it doesn’t mean one person is weak and the other one is strong. This is an oversimplification of complex inner and outer conditions.

The defining traits of trauma are that the event or enduring condition overwhelmed a person’s capacity to integrate the experience and they saw it as a threat to their lives or people they care for. Both of these traits are subjective: Individuals have different emotional capacities to integrate experiences and we may experience different things as a threat. Therefore, trauma may play out differently in two people.

In general, children have less capacity to navigate painful experiences due to the stage in human development compared to adults. Situations of childhood abuse, neglect, abandonment, or witnessing violence often have a traumatic impact on a child though a child often finds adaptive skills to cope with their environment. Another point that is often overlooked is that necessary medical procedures can have a traumatic impact since a child is often separated from their parents. Though, if trauma happens to a child, the response of a caregiver can leverage the negative impact on the child.

As a result, trauma is an individual experience depending on multiple factors. Only the individual can define whether something was traumatic for them.

3. Memories are often implicit, not explicit

As stated before, we often have implicit memories about trauma and not explicit ones. What does this mean? When we have implicit memories, we remember the event through body sensations and feelings. These emotions and body sensations are disconnected from the past event and they become a felt reality in the present moment. Therefore, we often can’t connect them with our traumatic past but as something that goes on in the present moment.

How can we become aware of implicit memories?

While I will dig deeper into this in later blog posts, we may notice implicit memories if our body sensations and emotions are disproportionate to what is going on in the present moment. I had implicit memories of abandonment when my parents separated. Those memories were triggered in my adult relationships and resulted in a disproportionately high fear of abandonment in romantic relationships. The first step for recovery is to be able to recognize implicit memories and practice mindfulness to learn to navigate them healthily.

4. Trauma and PTSD are connected but different

We need to be aware that the science of trauma is constantly evolving and that the Western world often views the signs and symptoms of trauma as a disorder that can stigmatize people who have survived trauma. A more modern perspective is to see the symptoms of trauma are a normal response to a threatening event or condition.

While I never sought diagnosis for PTSD, it can be validating for some people. I noticed in my workshops about Trauma and Recover that there is some confusion about the term trauma and PTSD. Some of the participants did not feel validated because they did not receive a diagnosis for PTSD.

Here is some guidance about PTSD and trauma:

The term “PTSD” (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a diagnosis based on the criteria described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses (DSM-5). DSM-5 is written by the American Psychiatric Association and mainly used in North America. If you are based in Europe, it is more likely that PTSD is defined by the criteria of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) which is developed by the World Health Organization. These criteria have also changed over the different versions of the DSM.An individual receives a PTSD diagnosis if they fit into the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. The prevalence rate of PTSD is between 1.3% to 37.4% on a global level and 9.2% in Canada (Ameringen, Mancini & Boyle, 2008). As you can see, this percentage is lower than the percentage of people who experienced trauma.

Not everyone who has experienced trauma fits into the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. Therefore, they won’t receive a diagnosis. This doesn’t mean that their trauma or their symptoms aren’t valid. It just means that their symptoms don’t fit the diagnostic criteria of PTSD in the DSM or ICD.

5. Recovery is possible

There are many negative stereotypes and biases out there that may prevent us from starting our recovery. Beliefs like “we are forever broken” or “trauma is a lifetime sentence” may make recovery feel impossible. I delayed my healing journey for years because I believed that these stigmatizing perspectives were true. One day, I found the courage to do it anyways – over time, I noticed that these beliefs weren’t true. Acknowledging what happened to me isn’t about dwelling on the past but rather understanding how the experiences have shaped me, learning to embrace all parts of me, and transforming them into strengths.

Healing it – in a trauma-informed way – is essential so that the traumatic past loses its power over us. Recovery doesn’t mean that you need to jump into painful stories right away (or tell them at all). The first phase of recovery is about restoring safety and stabilizing – this may include skill building to navigate painful emotions or grounding techniques and work with the existing symptoms of trauma. If a client feels confident with their skills, the second phase is about resolution and mourning. As a counselor, I use Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) in this phase. I like the method since it allows people to integrate the memories while they can choose how much they want to share about their story. The final phase of trauma resolution is about reconnection.

Please don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that healing is easy. It takes effort to heal from trauma. It is messy. It will have its ups and downs. As human beings, it’s common that part of us is scared of change, especially if it means looking at something overwhelming and threatening for us in the first place. An important lesson of my systemic training was “everything that is excluded, will persist.” When we have experienced trauma, we often want to avoid looking at it. However, this means that the trauma will continue to dominate our lives. Therefore, healing trauma – in a trauma-informed way – means that it slowly loses its power over us.

Recovery also doesn’t mean that what happened to you was ok – incidents of rape, childhood abuse, systemic oppression, or racism are not ok and never will be. However, the effects of these incidents will dominate our well-being until we start our recovery. We cannot change the facts of what happened to us but we can find inner freedom from the shadows of past trauma.

As a conclusion, trauma is a common element of our human experience. An experience is traumatic if it overwhelms our capacity to integrate it and if it is a (subjective or objective) threat to our lives or those we care for. Trauma is complex and highly individualized. While recovery takes effort, it is possible. The voices of stigma are still present in our society and not helpful to support recovery. Each person will have a unique recovery journey. In the counselling field, a phase model is used to support people in their recovery so that people can heal in the safest way possible.

“Paradox of trauma: Power to destroy and power to transform and resurrect.”
Peter A. Levine

I invite you to schedule a free 20-minute discovery session with me.

In this session, you will receive a needs assessment, gain clarity on the counselling process, and understand the potential strategies of the counselling process.

 

 

References
Ameringen, M., Mancini. C., Patterson, B., & Boyle, M. H. (2008). Posttraumatic stress disorder in Canada. CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, 14, 171-181. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-5949.2008.00049.x.

Photo
Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash

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