07 Apr Explaining trauma in a new way
I’ve spent nearly ten years reading, researching and writing about trauma. I’ve also read a freaky amount of self-help books too, because I love personal development, recovery and growth (I would marry personal development, recovery and growth if I could). As well as the love, I read them because I’ve realised that trauma is often re-packaged as something more palatable. Take a book on anxiety, or fear, or adversity, or repetitive negative thinking, or addiction, or low self-esteem, what they’re all talking about on some level is trauma. Only they don’t say the word trauma because if they did people would shudder and put their fingers in their ears. No one wants trauma, right? But the truth is, most of us have it in one form or another.
A trauma is an extremely overwhelming experience that frightens us and leaves us feeling powerless. This definition highlights that trauma is really subjective. My traumas are personal to me, yours are personal to you. Anything that causes you to feel really overwhelmed, frightened and powerless can lead to trauma symptoms. This includes severe disturbing experiences, but it also includes common everyday experiences that people often discount. Try and remember what it’s like to be a kid. Do you remember how even the smallest thing could make you feel overwhelmed and frightened? Everyday experience can lead to trauma symptoms, and this is especially true in childhood.
These types of buried traumas are particularly problematic because we often don’t consciously, or fully, remember the experiences. The experiences are buried, but the feelings, sensations and thoughts associated with them can be triggered. The experiences are buried, but our body and subconscious remembers. The experiences are buried, but the trauma is still active, still hot and unprocessed. Unprocessed means that the feelings, sensations and thoughts associated with the initial experience intrude in our lives when we’re reminded of the past hurt. People wind up feeling totally lost because no matter how hard they try, they’re thrown back to the past. People wind up feeling totally lost because no one has explained to them that what they’re dealing with is trauma.
You don’t have to have experienced a big ‘T’ trauma (severe and extreme) to carry trauma. Trauma is part of life. Most of us carry it in one form or another.
So what does this mean for us all? It means that we need to learn about trauma and traumatic reactions, because when we do we will better understand ourselves, our problems, our relationships, our choices and our loved ones. If we learn about trauma and how it might apply to us, we can move past it. We can grow and thrive in a new way.
I also explain that traumatic reactions are extremely broad. The initial fight, flight, freeze response can push us anywhere. This may sound a little abstract but through speaking to hundreds of people over the years I’ve learned that that initial overwhelm, fear and powerlessness can lead to many different outcomes. Some of these outcomes are common, but rarely linked to trauma unless they occur with many other trauma symptoms. Examples of this kind of outcome are repetitive negative thinking or chronic low self-worth. Some of the outcomes are less common and rarely linked to trauma because they are specific to someone’s unique reaction. Examples of this kind of outcome are chronic fear of being late, confusion, brain-fog, overeating, undereating, crippling fear of rejection, people pleasing, an abusive relationship pattern, alcohol misuse, becoming small and shut down around parents, anxiety when needing to speak, under-earning. I could have gone on with that list…and on…and on, because trauma pushes us to our edges and leaves us there.
I’m not the only person working in trauma saying that trauma is common and can manifest in loads of different, insidious, often unrecognised ways. But I think I’m one of the few so committed to providing inclusive, balanced, explanations. My explanations of trauma include the initial fight, flight, freeze response, cognitions (negative thinking), unprocessed memories, the body and dysfunctional coping. I ask people to look at the whole picture, and consider which of their current issues, problems and pain might be part of their own unique traumatic reaction. In fact, this article could be titled: explaining your problems in a new way. Because whatever kind of trauma you’ve experienced I believe freedom comes from figuring out how the trauma is showing up in your mind, your body and your behaviour. I guess you could say, this is my thing – to encourage people to join the dots, look at the whole picture, and heal it all.
Sarah Woodhouse is a trauma expert, research psychologist and writer who delivers people the knowledge and tools to recognise and overcome self-defeating cycles, to achieve personal freedom and success.
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