The very mention of the word trauma strikes fear into the heart of all of us. Immediately when we read or hear this word, we begin to visualize images of police sirens, firetrucks pulling out of their garage, war, hospitals, and crying children. We may even feel stress, anxiety, or fear.
Dealing with Trauma
Dealing with trauma is an ever-growing concern in our society today. Several studies have shown that 7or 8 people out of 100 will experience one if not several traumatic experiences in their lifetime. The normal physiological responses to extreme stress lead to states of physiological hyperarousal and anxiety.
Trauma can be described as an “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives.”
The definition of trauma does not name types of trauma or traumatic events. Instead it describes the experience of trauma and highlights the factors that influence the perception of trauma.
One psychologist states it this way:
Trauma is the unique, individual experience of an event or enduring conditions in which the individual’s ability to integrate their emotional experience is overwhelmed and the individual experiences (either objectively or subjectively) a threat to their life, bodily integrity, or that of a caregiver or family.Each person reacts differently to trauma and may experience a wide range of physical and emotional reactions. Many people may try to suppress these emotions or reactions and improperly think that their reaction to the event is “wrong.” This simply is not true as there is no “right” way to think, feel, or respond. You reacted to an abnormal event and everyone’s responses are true and right – because they are theirs.
There are symptoms to trauma which are universally felt and are typically experienced from a few days to a few months. Not everyone who has experienced a trauma has “PTSD.” One may even find that when they feel better and are back in a normal routine there are still times that one may experience grief, painful memories and emotions, or response triggers to a reminder of the event or the anniversary of that event. These are normal responses. However, there are many events which overwhelm the person’s ability to cope, or leaves the person fearing death, annihilation, mutilation, or psychosis.
Jon Allen states it’s the person’s perspective of the event which also constitutes the long-lasting effects of trauma.
Examples of Traumatic Events
Trauma comes in many forms. The definition of these can be treated as single event occurrences or repeated trauma. Here are some examples of traumatic events:
- War/political violence
- Human rights abuses
- Neglect, especially in childhood
- Criminal violence
- Domestic violence and/or the witnessing of violence
- Emotional/verbal abuse
- Natural disasters
- Sexual abuse
- Adverse childhood experiences
- Ongoing, relentless stress, such as living in a crime-ridden neighborhood or having a life-threatening illness
- Sudden death of loved one
- Accidents (car, fire, boat, etc…)
There are many more which could also be added, but this abbreviated list gives a view of some experiences that can lead to trauma. Psychological effects are likely to be most severe if the trauma is human caused, repeated, unpredictable, sadistic, undergone in childhood, and perpetrated by a caregiver.
Symptoms of Trauma
While symptoms of trauma vary from person to person, there are basic symptoms that clinicians base their diagnoses from.
Symptoms of PTSD or trauma include, but are not exhaustive of the following list:
- Shock, denial, or disbelief
- Confusion, difficulty concentrating
- Anger, irritability, and mood swings
- Anxiety and fear
- Guilt, shame, self-blame
- Feeling sad or hopeless frequently
- Feeling disconnected from others or emotionally numb
- Insomnia or nightmares
- Being startled easily
- Racing heartbeat
- Edginess or agitation
- Somatic issues (headache, stomach pain, muscle tension)
- Re-experiencing of the event
- Panic attacks
- Isolation from others
- Avoidance of reminders of event/s
In children and adolescents, symptoms may include the following:
- Eating disturbances
- Sleep disturbances
- Somatic complaints
- Clingy/separation anxiety
- Feeling helpless/passive
- Irritable/difficult to soothe
- Constricted play, exploration, mood
- Repetitive/post-traumatic play
- Developmental regression
- General fearfulness/new fears
- Easily startled
- Language delay
- Inability to attach to others
- Poor impulse control
- Self-destructive behavior
- Aggressive behavior
- Oppositional behavior
- Excessive compliance
- Reenactment of traumatic event/past
- Pathological self-soothing practices
- Difficulty paying attention
- Lack of sustained curiosity
- Problems processing information
- Problems focusing on/completing tasks
- Difficulty planning and anticipating consequences
- Learning difficulties, developmental delays
- Problems with language development
- Lack of continuous/predictable sense of self
- Poor sense of separateness
- Disturbance of body image
- Low self-esteem
- Shame and guilt
When a person is placed repetitively into stress-inducing situations, our physiological stress response changes to overdrive and we can lose the ability to respond appropriately and effectively to future stressors 10-30 years later.
This happens due to a process known as gene methylation, in which small markers, or methyl groups, adhere to genes. This can make a person more likely to over-react to the everyday stressors we meet in our daily lives such as an unexpected bill, a disagreement with our spouse or friend, stress at work, or traffic.
In turn, it can make us vulnerable to chronic health conditions such as autoimmune disease, heart disease, cancer, and depression, to name a few. Scientists have found that when the developing brain is chronically stressed, it releases a hormone that shrinks the size of the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for the processing of emotion, memory, and managing stress.
Recent MRI imaging studies suggest that the more adverse childhood experiences one had, the less gray matter an individual had, causing issues with mood disorders, poor problem-solving skills and decision making skills. These studies have also found that oxytocin and cortisol, which are released during a stressful event, can hard-wire fear-based memories.
When is Treatment Necessary for Trauma Recovery?
All this information may leave one feeling more helpless and begging to ask the question, “How do I get over past trauma?” First, let us define when does one need to go to treatment.
Recovery from trauma does take time. There is no easy “1, 2, 3 method,” or a drive-through treatment option. If you or a loved one have been experiencing the above symptoms for more than a month or two and your symptoms are not reducing, it may be a good time to seek treatment.
The following may help one decide this:
- Having trouble functioning at home or work
- Suffering from severe fear, anxiety, or depression
- Unable to form close, satisfying relationships
- Experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks (re-experiencing the trauma as if you were still there)
- Dissociation (daydreaming excessively, lack of concentration)
- Avoiding more and more things which remind you of the trauma
- Emotionally numb and disconnected from others
- Using alcohol or drugs to cope with feelings
- Crying excessively or unable to control feelings with normal everyday stressors
These symptoms as well as others perhaps not listed, may indicate that you are not coping well despite all your efforts to do so and get back to “normal.”
In order to heal from our pain, we must resolve ourselves to undergo the task of dealing with the unpleasant memories and feelings you have long avoided, learn how to self-regulate your body, and rebuild your trust of others and one’s self.
Types of Therapy for Christian Counseling Trauma
There are many types of therapies which focus on treating trauma, including Somatic experiencing, Mindfulness, Cognitive-Behavioral therapy, and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) which incorporates elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy with eye movements and rhythmic, left-right stimulation.
Working through trauma can be scary and painful as well as potentially retraumatizing, so finding the right therapist with whom you feel comfortable, safe, respected, and understood is important as well.
We as humans are naturally “meaning makers.” Each of us has a strong inclination to want to find a reason or understand why we experienced the trauma. I have found as a therapist that finding meaning in life is one way to release the painful part of trauma and it begins to become part of our narrative, our story of who we are and why.
Tips for Overcoming Trauma
Here are some things that may help you if you are experiencing any effects of trauma in your life:
- Exercise: Trauma disrupts your body’s natural equilibrium, freezing you in a state of hyperarousal and fear. In layman’s terms, your nervous system gets “stuck.” Exercise and movement can help your nervous system “unstick” itself. Try to use exercise that is rhythmic and engages both your arms and legs.
- Try not to isolate. You don’t have to talk about the trauma, but connecting with others can make us feel engaged and accepted and give us a sense of “normalcy.”
- Ask for support
- Reconnect with old friends
- Join a support group for survivors
- Make new friends if you live away from family or friends
- Vocal toning. As strange as this sounds, vocal toning is a great way to help one deal with social anxiety. Sit up straight and simply make “mmm” sounds or hum a tune which is soothing.
- Work on self-regulating your nervous system by mindful breathing. Sensory input which is soothing like a certain candle scent, perfume, lowering the lighting, petting an animal, listening to music which is soothing, or using essential oils can be helpful.
- Allow yourself to feel what you feel when you feel it. Acknowledge your feelings as they arise and accept them.
- Get plenty of sleep or rest.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs.
- Eat a well-balanced diet.
- Reduce stress.
For most of us, brokenness, trauma, hurt, and pain all look negative. Psychology has afforded us the knowledge of understanding why trauma happens in our brain. We literally can form what neurologists describe and name as “psychological ruts.” These ruts cause us to think and behave in patterns which are not healthy, but ones in which we have become accustomed to.
While I was in Uganda, God gave me a very tangible example of massive ruts (see photo). These roads were the only roads to and from the city. The ruts were so large we got stuck many times, much to the entertainment of many nationals who laughed and gawked at us as several of us got out to push and became covered in mud!
You may not be able to understand the depth, but I was standing in the rut to the right, and it came up to my hip. The van’s tires were totally covered and the mud would cover up to half of the van!
There was talk that the local government was going to build paved roads or at least place rock on them (unfortunately for us, not while we were there). Just as rebuilding these roads would help expedite travel, therapy helps us to form new psychological pathways so we can avoid getting stuck in old patterns of negative thinking, maladaptive behavior, and be able to form more positive relationships.
Finding Purpose in the Pain
Here is another picture of trauma which may be helpful. When we see a broken tree like this, our inclination is to only see a useless, dead, decomposing tree. But if we can receive help from others, we can begin to see this tree for more than the death and destruction.
This tree is not useless. It became a home to animals, a place to sit along a trail when one is weary, and if we take a closer look, it becomes a new path for others to travel upon and provides safety for others to cross over out of danger and makes their way easier.
If we can face our pain, our suffering, and deal with the destruction in our lives, we can find meaning and purpose in life again. We cannot allow trauma to define us or cause “ruts” to form in our lives where we are unable to live to the fullest.
By recognizing that we are strong, we did survive, that we can weather the storms of life, we build resilience. We also gain new compassion for others who have experienced trauma. We can offer our narrative to others to be a beacon of hope or to advocate for those who are experiencing their own pain and trauma. What we see through the eyes of fear and discouragement, God sees it through His desire to comfort and heal.
In the center of our brokenness is the Cross.
Don’t just be a “Survivor,” become a “Thriver.” We do not have to continue to limp along in this world. We can face our pain, wounds, shame, and doubt with complete confidence that God desires to heal us.
Sometimes it takes us getting a friend, a counselor, or pastor to walk with us on our path and build our new life story. If this article spoke to you, or you have a friend or loved one who is facing or has faced trauma – call a professional christian counselor in spokane today for support, unconditional love, and safety as you face your struggles. We would love to hear from you and we are honored to walk with you on this journey to healing.
Allen, Jon G. Coping with Trauma: A Guide to Self-Understanding. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1995
Saakvitne, K. et al, 2000
Photo credit: Rikki Gruen, All Rights Reserved