What is trauma?
A trauma is a single event, or an enduring or repeating event or events, that completely overwhelm your ability to cope with that experience.
The sense of being overwhelmed can be delayed by weeks, years or even decades, as you struggle to cope with the present-day outcomes. Psychological trauma can lead to serious long-term negative consequences.
An event is traumatic if it violates your sense of self. This can be a direct violation, such as rape, assault, discrimination, bullying or other abusive treatment. Or it can be an indirect violation, such as witnessing domestic violence, murder, natural disasters and war.
Long-term exposure to mild trauma accumulates, leading to the same trauma response. For example, long-term verbal abuse, demeaning treatment, poverty or indoctrination can lead to a serious trauma response.
Trauma is very personal, since each of us has a different history and different coping limits – so one person may experience an event as non-traumatic because it doesn’t have that sense of overwhelm, whereas someone else will be overwhelmed and therefore traumatised.
This can lead to a sense of shame – “there must be something wrong with me that I can’t cope”. But there is no shame in having an experience that is overwhelming – you didn’t choose it.
How do I recognise a trauma response?
A key indicator of a traumatic event is that you re-experience it.
In the severest form this re-experience is in the form of a flashback – which is when the traumatic event is relived as if it were happening all over again, with no sense of it being a memory. These flashbacks are themselves traumatic because they are as real as the original experience.
A more common form of re-experiencing is where you get an intrusive thought – a memory of the event that invades your thoughts or dreams. You retain an awareness that it is a memory, but it is nevertheless deeply disturbing to be reminded so vividly of such an unpleasant experience.
Many people cope with these re-experiences by developing a coping strategy. However, many coping strategies cause other problems.
For example, an unconscious coping strategy (by unconscious I mean this strategy develops spontaneously without thought) is dissociation. That is, a numbing out that disconnects your feelings from the event or its re-experiencing. The problem with dissociation is it becomes a habitual coping strategy in other areas of life, possibly leading to a feeling of not feeling anything – a general numbness about everything.
Another coping strategy is to numb out by using alcohol or drugs to create the disconnection of feelings. Again, the problem is that the coping strategy tends to take over in all areas of life, becomes the coping strategy for everything. One of the problems with drug and alcohol treatments is they focus on the substances as the problem and tend to be blind to the underlying trauma which led to you developing this coping strategy in the first place.
Some people repress the trauma feelings, a kind of denial. However, the problem with this strategy is that it is exhausting and the trauma tends to leak out as anger directed at innocent friends and family. Small incidents can feel threatening and trigger this anger.
Our emotional experience of the world works largely by association. A certain series of events or sensory experiences feels a bit like a past scenario and reminds you of it. We all re-experience our pasts all the time because of these associations. But if that past scenario was traumatic, then the trauma is re-experienced.
Part of the process of understanding and taking control of your trauma response is to work out what these triggers are. It also helps to know that this is what is happening – you have these triggers and an unrelated experience can trigger them.
Sometimes the past event is obscured. For example, people seriously injured in crashes sometimes remember nothing of the crash. We have a self-protection mechanism that shields us from the event. However, this self-protection is imperfect and the triggers can still set up a re-experiencing of some of the feelings associated with that trauma.
What can you do about trauma?
When you have experienced trauma, you need to find a way of talking about it. You need to tell the story, probably many times over. This way you heal from the trauma and reduce its power over you.
It is difficult to do this with friends and family simply because most people will not want to go through this telling and retelling process. Or rather, you will not want to lean on your friends and family as much as you need to to complete the process. Furthermore, friends and family will find it difficult to listen because they care about you and don’t want to see you hurting. They may also try and rescue you from your coping strategy rather than hear about its cause.
Taking away a coping strategy without addressing the underlying cause can be dangerous. It leaves you exposed to overwhelming feelings with no way of coping with it, which can result in further traumatisation. So you should not give up any coping strategy initially, but accept that you need it for now. Coping strategies tend to fade away as trauma recovery takes place.
Most people find that it is easier to talk about trauma with someone they are not close to, someone who’s job is to listen as long as is necessary.