What is trauma?
In our current cultural dialogue, the word “trauma” is used frequently enough that it’s difficult for people to define. The APA (American Psychological Association) describes trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event…(including) shock, denial…unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms.” The difficult reality is that many people have experienced traumatic events, and those events continue to impact their lives long after they occurred. Events such as:
- Sexual trauma, like abuse, assault, harassment, rape or coercion
- Physical trauma, such as abuse or assault
- Relationship violence, including physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Incident trauma, such as car accidents or witnessing violence
- Developmental trauma, such as child abuse, neglect or incest
- Health or medical trauma, including systemic issues or struggles to access care
- Race-based or Identity-based trauma
- The intersections of any of the above, or other events that have a severe, adverse impact on health and growth as a human being
So, what happens during and after trauma?
Trauma memories are encoded in the brain differently than other kinds of memories. They are linked to a host of emotional, cognitive, physiological symptoms and responses that actually make sense. The thing about trauma we forget is that our bodies and brains are learning systems. If you touch fire, your skin burns, your nerves scream “Ouch!”, your brain says, “Watch out!” and you learn not to touch fire again. Traumatic events work the same way. Your body and brain learn some event, place, person or thing is really, really dangerous. They keep reminding you over and over, often in really difficult ways, not to go near that thing again. Intrusive thoughts, fears, memories, flashbacks, nightmares…they all make sense if we think about trauma as a “teaching moment” from our bodies and brains trying to keep us safe.
Unfortunately those strategies can degrade over time, become exhausting, get applied to things that aren’t actually dangerous, and generally make the lives of trauma survivors difficult and painful. The key to addressing trauma in therapy is getting your mind engaged, making sense of what your body and brain are telling you, and figuring out how to navigate that road. Therapy can serve as a GPS for the journey: guiding, helping, suggesting, scaffolding and providing support if you start to feel lost.
If reading about trauma here resonates for you, click back to the contact page and let’s get started down the road to recovery.