Posted by: Edward | March 9, 2023

A Friendly Introduction to Trauma

Our trauma responses are deeply wired into our bodies and brains. They live below and before the parts of us that are human and are instead part of our animal heritage. They are response systems older, faster, and more primitive than thought.

Photo by Alexander Grey

These systems live on in us because they work. The living beings who had these systems were far more likely to survive long enough to be our ancestors then the ones that didn’t.

When these systems are activated they preempt our slower, more complicated, and more recently evolved brain systems. When our body mind perceives our survival is at risk, thinking is no longer the priority.

This means that while these survival systems are activated, we can do things we wouldn’t choose to if we were thinking. Things that surprise us. Things that go against our values. Understanding how these body mind systems work can help us cope with embarrassment, guilt, and shame over what we did, or didn’t do, in order to survive.

These survival systems evolved to be acute responses. A threat arises, they turn on, we do what we need to do, the threat passes, we shake it off or otherwise process it, and we return to baseline. And most of the time that’s how it goes.

Other times we aren’t so lucky. Sometimes our experiences are too overwhelming and we’re unable to fight or flee our way out of them. Sometimes we freeze or dissociate and our minds can’t make sense of the experiences afterwards. These experiences form what we call trauma.

We will then be prone to having our survival systems activated in situations that remind our brain of the traumatic experience. Because our brains have trouble making sense of the traumatic experiences, these reminders can seem as if they’re the original situation happening now. This is what is referred to as flashbacks.

Sometimes these can be as vivid as hallucinations or waking dreams. Other times these can be more subtle, where we are in the emotional states from the experience. And given the nature of traumatic experiences these can be feelings like rage, terror, confusion, despair. These powerful unpleasant feelings can be mismatched to what is actually happening now.

This re-experiencing can also occur in our dreams. The most common trauma symptom is nightmares.

Another form of re-experiencing is the tendency for people with significant trauma to recreate or set up situations similar to their trauma. This is one of the reasons some of us find ourselves in relationships that are strikingly familiar.

With all of these forms of re-experiencing our survival systems tend to get highly activated. And each and every time they do our thinking is distorted and stress is impacting our bodies.

People who have experienced trauma over extended periods of time may also find that these threat detection and threat defense systems start staying active all the time.

This might look like being angry and ready to fight, all the time. It might look like running around and always needing to be busy. It might look like having no energy, not really being present in our lives, and having given up. It might look like always expecting and looking for danger and catastrophe. It might look a lot like anger problems, hyperactivity, depression, and anxiety.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not saying these issues are always or only a matter of trauma but sometimes trauma is a major factor in their development. And if other treatments don’t help someone with them, exploring whether and how trauma might be involved may be a good idea.

The better we understand trauma the more we are finding that people have. So if you think you might have trauma, understand that it is a normal human experience. Facing the challenges of life sometimes bruises us. Many people have trauma. I have trauma.

Many people have trauma but don’t have sufficient symptoms to qualify as having post-traumatic stress disorder. If that’s you, that’s okay, it doesn’t make your experiences any less valid.

What matters is whether your trauma experiences are interfering with your ability to live your life. If they are, then you might benefit from seeking help.

This can be help with skills to cope with or live around the trauma you have, this is often called trauma-informed care. Or this can be help to more directly address the traumatic experiences themselves, this is generally called trauma therapy or trauma counseling.

There are several different styles, schools, or approaches to trauma therapy, each with their own focus and with similarities and differences between them. But in general, healing from trauma is found in connection and letting what is trapped within us to be experienced, understood, and expressed.

These knots begin to untangle when we can be with the memories, sensations, and feelings of the past AND with what is happening in the present moment. When we can be with our feelings and bodily sensations AND with the parts of our brain that can speak and make sense of things. And when we can be with the thoughts and feelings inside us AND be present and connected with the people around us.

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