When I complete an assessment, I ask people about the trauma they’ve had in their lives, and although many use the word often in their vocabulary to describe an upsetting event, it’s not uncommon for them to tell me that they’ve not had any. Trauma can be defined as “a serious injury or shock to the body, an emotional wound or shock that creates substantial, lasting damage to the psychological development of a person, or an event that causes great distress and disruption”. It’s the last part of that definition that applies to all of us, because many things happen in life that create distress and disruption.
We all clearly understand the major traumas in life, such as witnessing death during a violent crime, war, or a fatal accident. I think we would also agree that having an experience that results in a person fearing that he or she is going to die would also fall under the category of a major trauma. These might include choking and near-drowning incidents, car accidents, or natural disasters. Major traumas would also clearly include experiences of abuse, rape, and being a victim of a crime.
It’s the hundreds of smaller traumas that we often forget about or brush aside. Children, for example, often perceive experiences as traumatic. They endure mean teachers, bullies, academic struggles, criticism by peers or their parents, etc. Anxious, shy children feel traumatized when they raise their hands in class, talk to people, or leave their mothers to go to school. During adolescence, teenagers are exposed to sexual harassment, exposure to drugs and alcohol, and what can be a cruel group of peers. For many adolescents, the physical changes they go through feel traumatic, especially for those that are overweight, have acne, or either develop earlier or later than those around them. What about all of the other difficult things we go through as adults? Half of all married people go through divorce, and I’ve never had anyone tell me that that process didn’t feel traumatic. We also experience medical problems, job losses, and death of loved ones.
Most of the time, people work through these traumas without lasting effects. These experiences even help us to build effective coping skills that we can use in future situations. Even if we experience some distressing symptoms, such as difficulties sleeping and increased anxiety, these generally go away with time. Even if the memories still haunt us, many people can function fairly effectively in their lives. For example, somebody who almost drowned may just avoid swimming.
We can thank the brain for helping us get through traumas, but we can also blame the brain when our symptoms become more severe. Though our brain generally processes memories in a productive way, it is sometimes unable to do so because of its overriding need to survive. This survival part, often referred to as the “fight, flight or freeze” response, interferes with our ability to process some memories. Though the brain has done its job, which is to keep us alive, sometimes it leaves people with memories that haunt them and cause more severe trauma symptoms. These include nightmares, intrusive thoughts of the trauma, avoidance of things and situations that remind us of what happened, insomnia, extreme anxiety and depression.
When functioning becomes impaired because of trauma, and you’re not able to live life normally, it is time to get help. Psychotherapy, medication, and relaxation techniques, like yoga and meditation, have all been found to be effective. Cognitive behavioral therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (E.M.D.R.), and exposure therapy are kinds of therapy techniques that are supported by research as being helpful in reducing the symptoms of trauma. Whatever method you chose, it’s important to help your brain recover, so that you can continue to live a normal life.