Trauma: The Basics
What is trauma?
Trauma is a term used to describe a type of response a person has to an experience, not an experience itself. An experience or event may be traumatic, but the event(s) itself is not what we are referring to when we say the word trauma.
“Trauma is not what happens to you, it is what happens inside of you as a result of what happens to you” - Gabor Maté
Trauma occurs when a traumatic event(s) are not adequately processed, understood, explored, or the individual is unable to escape the event and/or feel a sense of safety after the traumatic event has been experienced.
Sometimes people can remember the traumatic event(s), sometimes they cannot. You do not need to consciously remember a traumatic event(s) to experience trauma. Trauma can be confusing and distressing for many individuals because their body is responding to something their conscious minds cannot fully recall.
Traumatic experiences are subjective - what may be traumatic for you, may not be traumatic for another, depending on your personality and prior experiences.
PTSD vs. CPTSD
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) are two current trauma diagnostic terms. Below is an outline of what each of these terms means, and the difference between the two.
PTSD: Indicates a singular acute event has occurred that has caused an individuals trauma. The individual may have had exposure to a brief but devastating event. Some examples of acute trauma include war, unwanted sexual experiences, a car crash, or natural disasters like an earthquake. Some examples of symptoms individuals with PTSD may experience include nightmares, flashbacks, unwanted and/or upsetting memories, hypervigilance, difficulty sleeping, irritability or aggression, and engagement in risky behaviours. PTSD can develop regardless of an individuals age.
CPTSD: A series of events that repeatedly occur over an extended period of time. Sometimes referred to as developmental or psychological trauma, it is generally the result of childhood traumas. This develops over a long period of time and has equally devastating impacts on an individuals life as PTSD. Some examples include (but are not limited to) emotional neglect, bullying, disrupted attachment, or humiliation. Individuals with CPTSD can have difficulty identifying or managing their emotions in healthy ways, a negative self-image and esteem, feel unsafe in the world, struggle to relax, experience sleep disruptions, have difficulty with relationships, can experience physical and chronic illnesses.
Note: It is important to acknowledge that this field is multiplex. Other diagnoses not mentioned in this article can develop as a result of trauma, or for many other reasons co-occur with other diagnoses. This information is for educational purposes only, if you are in need of a mental health diagnosis I recommend getting in contact with your GP to discuss this further.
Effects of Trauma
There are numerous effects trauma can have on an individual and their life.
Often traumatised individuals can have a tremendous problem experiencing pleasure and joy, find it difficult to trust or rely on other people, struggle to set boundaries, have difficulty forming close relationships and being vulnerable with others. Relational interactions and communication default to defending and protecting oneself rather than attaching and connecting to another.
The body is still responding to something which has happened in the past, rather than what is presently in front of it. The individual may feel fear, terror, shame or disgust while in a space where there is no immediate danger. This is because trauma changes the brain, in particular, the most primitive part of the brain which is usually very quiet. Instead, it continues to send messages “I am in danger” and “I am not safe” signalling the fight-flight response or causing an individual to shut down. The brain is interpreting something as a life threat, something it has learned is a life threat. It responds in ways it thinks are best to survive - to stay alive in the face of this threat.
How therapy can help
If you or someone you know has trauma or a diagnosis of PTSD or CPTSD, therapy is here to help you. Different approaches work differently for different people. There is no one style, model or approach of therapy that works for everyone. We are all uniquely different, so it is important to explore which style works best for you. Regardless of how you go about getting there, some of the positive benefits you can experience from seeking support include:
A better sense of past experiences and how they have impacted your life today
Reduction in thoughts and behaviours that disrupt daily functioning
Ability to move forward and live a healthy happy life
Reduce fear in areas of life that are not or no longer a danger and threat
Increased empowerment and control of your responses, reactions, and life choices
Learn about yourself, who you are, your values and interests, and how to authentically be yourself
Build long-lasting self-compassion, self-confidence and self-esteem
Feel equipped, able to manage and less fearful of uncomfortable and challenging emotions and experiences
Practice courage through acknowledging and expressing vulnerability
Ways to develop and/or maintain healthy relationships
You will have someone to turn to, someone there to support you, to guide you through adverse experiences and help you return to wellness and feelings of safety in your times of need
The first step in the recovery from trauma starts with the realisation that we might actually be traumatised. There are many individuals who are unaware they are traumatised because there is no conscious or active memory of what was traumatic. The clues lie in the symptoms - the difficulties you or your loved one is having.
“The catastrophe you fear will happen, has in fact already happened” - Donald Winnicott
Knowing what we fear happening to us gives us clues to what has happened to us previously. Identifying this safely gives us an understanding of ourselves and our responses while acknowledging where the catastrophe truly belongs: in the past.
The compassion, kindness and love you express to yourself and you receive from others is extremely important in the journey of recovery and healing. If you are seeking support to manage and move forward from trauma, I’d love to support your journey. You can contact me via the link below.
Poppy is a registered psychotherapist in private practice providing individual psychotherapy to adults. Poppy believes that healing comes from within. By turning our focus inwards, we can experience change in all areas of life.