What is trauma?
Trauma is what happens inside us as a result of what happens to us. It is anything that fundamentally changes our view of ourselves, others, God, or life in general.
Big T Trauma
As a society, we have become familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD, as associated with military veterans returning from combat. Natural disasters are another recognized source of traumatic experiences, as are life-altering accidents and in today’s world, mass shootings. Police officers and firefighters are among those who face such threats on a regular basis.
In the mental health community, these are known as Big T traumas, characterized by a real threat to one’s life, or witnessing another’s death, or the threat of death, of another. Big T traumas are often associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, not everyone who experiences a big T trauma will develop PTSD.
Little t trauma
Recent years have brought a growing recognition of what has come to be called little t traumas or complex trauma that results from more “ordinary” life experiences. Ordinary in the sense that some such event happens at some point to most everyone.
Adverse childhood experiences
One example that we hear much about these days is bullying. Schoolyard bullies have been around forever and they have left psychic wounds for just as long. But social media has extended the reach of bullies far beyond the schoolyard. Verbal abuse does as much if not more harm than the fistfights of former years. Posted online for all the world to see, it follows wherever a child takes a cell phone—virtually everywhere.
Adults all too often are also perpetrators of verbal and emotional abuse. Any adult who has a position of authority in a child’s life can wreck emotional havoc when they convey that one child is worth less than another; or simply worthless, not expected to amount to anything.
Physical abuse is another source of trauma. Children too often experience violence in the home at the hands of those who are tasked to protect them. Equally traumatizing is witnessing the abuse of a sibling or parent.
Perhaps most traumatizing of all is child sexual abuse. Again, it is usually perpetrated by a trusted family member, friends, coaches, clergy, the list could go on and on.
As the “MeToo” movement has demonstrated sexual trauma does not stop with children. Many adults, mostly but not exclusively women, are also sexually assaulted or forced into unwanted sexual contact.
Neither does verbal, emotional or physical abuse end in childhood. Ask anyone who has been trapped in an abusive relationship what it does to their sense of self to face verbal denigration or physical threats day in and day out.
What every person, child or adult, who has been traumatized has in common in a sense of constant danger. They do not feel safe in their homes, schools, workplaces or communities. They are constantly on alert scanning for danger even when unaware of it. It takes only seconds for their brains to go into a full-blown fight, flight or freeze response leading to intense overreactions to minor triggers.
Raging, running away or shutting down emotionally and socially all have negative effects on relationships of any kind. A person who has been traumatized may feel abandoned or betrayed by something that a healthy person might brush off or quickly resolve. A traumatized individual may have no boundaries and allow themselves to be taken advantage of—and thus retraumatized. Or they may have rigid boundaries that keep them from connecting in relationships.
Healing from trauma
While trauma may have long-term and devastating effects, that is not always the case. The majority of combat veterans and survivors of natural disasters or mass shootings do not develop PTSD. Some have an internal resilience that allows them to process and recover from trauma on their own. Some have the resources to get help to process the experience early on and thus avoid long-term negative effects.
If you have experienced a trauma but never dealt with it and find yourself anxious and depressed, over-reactive or shut down—there is still hope.
Recovery is a process
- facing the trauma
- recognizing and grieving the losses that are part of it
- rejecting false beliefs about yourself, others and God
- purposing to forgive
- learning to love and accept yourself
- learning healthy coping skills
- experiencing God’s love for you
Look for a therapist who is experienced in dealing with trauma and commit to working through it with them. If that person is trained in EMDR, so much the better.
Because stress is stored in our bodies, an exercise of any type is beneficial. Yoga or Pilates have been proven to be particularly helpful in trauma recovery, and therapeutic massage can make a positive difference.
Regular practices of meditation and prayer will calm the central nervous system, as will listening to or participating in music.
If you have experienced trauma and find it intruding into your daily life, know that there is hope and don’t be afraid to ask for help.