“We now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive. These changes explain why traumatized individuals become hypervigilant to threat at the expense of spontaneously engaging in their day-to-day lives. They also help us understand why traumatized people so often keep repeating the same problems and have such trouble learning from experience. We now know that their behaviors are not the result of moral failings or signs of lack of willpower or bad character–they are caused by actual changes in the brain”
- Bessel A. Van Der Kolk, "The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma"
Trauma is all around us, but often we do not realize how we are/have been affected by it. Trauma is my area of focus and one that I am extremely passionate about. Therefore, I would love to make it a topic of conversation by talking about Trauma every week for the next month! I will be posting blogs as well as videos on my business Facebook page - I would love for you to follow along!
So, what is Trauma? In this blog specifically, I am referring specifically to "Capital T" Trauma. Trauma occurs through relationships, events, or actions that have happened in someone's life and often can have life altering effects. Examples of this can include: bullying, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, violence, and loss. However, these are just a few. The power of Trauma is unfortunately so vast that it is often occurs more than we even realize. Trauma is a completely personal experience and the effects of it are different for everyone.
With Trauma, often many people are affected. There are primary survivors of Trauma and secondary survivors of Trauma. Trauma also occurs in such a way that two people could be in the exact same place at the same time and the experience is completely different. For instance, You and a Friend are driving to dinner when all of the sudden, the car next to you starts swerving out of control. You are the driver and therefore your focus in that moment is to avoid the swerving car. Your friend is the passenger and is watching it all happen in slow motion. Even though you both were in the exact same car experiencing the same thing, you are going to have two different versions of the story, two different experiences, and therefore may have two different resulting symptoms from this experience. That is the reality of Trauma. Everyone has their own perspective and therefore is going to be affected differently.
Trauma is all inclusive in the fact that it affects the entire person - mind, body, and soul. Because Trauma can be so complex, I am hoping to break it down a little bit. The effects of Trauma are difficult to put into words, but can be done if we are willing to try to talk about it. Over the next few weeks, I will discuss Trauma in segments to better break it down. This first week will be focused on the Brain.
A Trigger is something outside of ourselves that reminds us of a traumatic experience that we have had in the past. Triggers are a very common result of Trauma, as there is always going to be stimuli that reminds us of the traumatic experience. We may not even realize that there is stimuli that reminds us of the event until the Trigger occurs and we respond. These triggers can come up when we least expect them and they can come up on a regular basis. As mentioned above, it is usually something in our external environment that occurs and therefore reminds us of the Trauma. A trigger can appear in different forms - it could be an environment, something that engages our senses, a human feature, etc. It could literally be anything, as it is usually personalized to us and what we have experienced. We all respond differently to triggers, but the response may take the form of a physiological response, a flashback (which I will discuss later), or a sudden mood change.
1. You and your friend are at a movie and she sees someone that looks identical to her abusive ex-boyfriend. She instantly goes into a panic, has escalated breathing, and tears start rolling down her face.
2. Maybe you experience a rush of anxiety and become tense at the sight of your doctor's office where you received your cancer diagnosis.
3. Maybe you see an ambulance and it reminds you of the day that you lost a loved one.
These are all examples of what Triggers and our responses may look like. Triggers occur based on our specific past experiences and are catered to us as individuals. While you may be triggered by an ambulance, others may not be.
(Side Note: I will talk in a future blog about how to deal with Triggers when they occur.)
One of the most common ways that Trauma affects our brain is through our memories. When someone has a memory of an event, it can include any of our 5 senses - sound, sight, touch, taste, and smell. For a typical memory, this is no problem. However, for one who has experienced Trauma, any of these senses can trigger a traumatic memory. Once the trigger occurs, it brings up the memory of the traumatic event. However, memories also occur at other times than just when you are triggered. These memories can come and go as they please and therefore can affect us at any moment of the day. While memory is a valued aspect of our lives, they are often dreaded among someone who has experienced Trauma, due to the fact that those memories are not pleasant. These memories can also come up even when we are not triggered.
While some people have vivid memories of their Traumatic experiences, others may not have any recollection of the Trauma that they experienced. This is our brains way of protecting us. Our brain does not know how to process Trauma and therefore it can become overwhelmed. Some people remember all aspects of their Trauma, some remember only parts of their Trauma, and some have completely forgotten about their Trauma.
Do you ever find yourself driving down the highway and all of the sudden realize that you do not remember driving for the past 5 minutes? This is very common. However, take this example and apply it to spending time with loved ones, but then not remembering what was talked about or the overall time with them. This can often be how someone who has experienced Trauma feels. It is difficult to stay in the moment, due to all of the thoughts swirling around in their head. Not only is it easy to get stuck in the overwhelming thoughts that occur, but it can sometimes feel more safe to be stuck in thought, than to be in reality. Getting stuck in your thoughts is often a great way to avoid having to let your guard down and therefore can also protect you from having to be in touch with yourself. This is often a common way that someone who has survived Sexual Abuse detaches from their body. If we fail to acknowledge our body moment to moment, we tend to neglect it and therefore do not have to recognize it as a part of ourselves. Our body can often be our biggest source of betrayal, as it can often remind us of the abuse that occurred.
Being in the moment can also be difficult, as it is normal for a Trauma survivor to get stuck in the past memory of the Trauma. Getting stuck in the past can cause for one to become consumed and hyper-focused on the fear of this type of Trauma potentially happening again, and therefore can engulf every thought process. For instance, say for someone that was a part of a bank robbery. Their sense of safety in the world is shaken and therefore it can be difficult for them to think about going out in public again. Being in public now equates to the fact that their life could potentially be threatened. Experiences like this can then become the only thing that person thinks about, as well as having to isolate themselves in their home to feel safe. The brain creates a new equation of Being in Public = Not safe. Therefore, being in public is something that will be avoided to ensure safety.
After Trauma, the Limbic System (the emotional part of our brain) takes over. Therefore, the Frontal Cortex (the area responsible for reasoning, planning, problem solving, movement and speech) does not function at its best. Our brain's job is to take in stimuli and determine whether or not there is a perceived threat. After Trauma though, our Frontal Cortex struggles to be able to rationalize through a situation and distinguish whether or not a true threat exists. This dysfunction is due to our Limbic System taking control away from our Frontal Cortex. Our Hypothalamus (part of the Limbic System that receives messages through our senses and communicates them to other areas of our brain) often becomes hyperactive in interpreting most situations as unsafe, which leaves the individual in a constant state of panic. When an interpreted unsafe situation occurs, the individual is reminded of the past traumatic situation, and often believe that a similar situation will occur in the future. If I were to give an analogy, it is somewhat like hiding behind a brick wall to fully assess and observe a situation before entering, to ensure safety. The problem is that most of the time the Trauma survivor gets stuck behind the wall observing and never choosing to engage, because this is the most safe option. Until they have gained the skills to feel safe entering a situation, it is often completely avoided, which encourages isolation.
I briefly mentioned flashbacks above, but I wanted to come back to them, due to the fact that having flashbacks is a very common symptom of experiencing a traumatic event. Flashbacks can occur either by something that triggered them or on their own. When a flashback occurs, the individual can often feel like they are reliving the traumatic incident. During the flashback, they may be aware of sensations in their body, feelings that they felt during the incident, or have images racing through their mind. Imagine that Susie is sitting in class and all of the sudden starts having images flash through her head of the physical abuse that she endured from her mom. This brings about feelings of sadness and anxiety and she feels like she is going to jump out of her chair. She starts crying and cannot contain the tears, so she asks to use the bathroom to avoid the stares of her classmates. This is a perfect example of what one might feel during a flashback. However, once again, these experiences are individual and can look differently for everyone.
I want to close this out by saying that we as a society have experienced so much Trauma both as individuals, as well as a whole. But how much have we talked about it? Just in our own community, we have experienced the Columbine Shooting and the Theatre Shooting, but once the media stopped reporting, we forget about them and move on as if they never occurred. Yes, we remember them during the anniversaries, but it does not affect our everyday life. But there are still people who are very much hurting and they were forever changed from these events.
Maybe you were not a part of these events, but you experienced Trauma in your own life. How are you dealing with that? Do you find yourself affected by any of the things mentioned in this blog? I want to acknowledge you if you are hurting and tell you that your experience is important, and it does not have to define you for the rest of your life. I feel privileged to be on this journey with you if you choose to join along, and I look forward to being able to connect on a level that most are not willing to go to.
Please feel free to leave a comment or reach out to me:
Brittany Wingfield// 720-336-0913//
Nurtured Hearts Counseling - Blog
I am a Therapist in Lone Tree, Colorado and my goal for this blog is to explore taboo subjects that no one is willing to talk about and I am eager to bring awareness to.