All of our lives are shaped by trauma to a certain extent.
Life is full of suffering and no one can escape a taste of pain, loss, violence, grief and other tragedy. As we grow up and mature, we adapt, adjust and contort ourselves around the circumstances we are faced with and these conditioning circumstances determine to a large degree our personality and habitual ways of responding to life.
In this brief article I address the effects of trauma in a more narrowly defined sense of the word. As an event or ongoing situation that was experienced as threatening to your life or personal integrity. This can of course take many forms, ranging from one earth-shattering event to long years of ongoing abuse or neglect.
All people cope and respond differently to the circumstances they are presented with, and how resilient someone is, is to a large extent determined by their early experiences. For example someone who grew up in an adequate family and has a good level of secure attachment will be better able to withstand a traumatic event happening in adulthood than someone who has received inadequate parenting.
Effects of trauma
In some cases trauma overwhelms our ability to cope, and the resulting symptoms can be debilitating. Stress hormones flood our system on a semi permanent basis and this can result in a variety of symptoms including:
- Being hypervigilant or constantly on guard or high alert
- Decreased concentration, inability to focus.
- Anxiety and panic
There are many other effects that trauma can have on all domains of a person’s life and functioning. Of course many of these depend on the nature of the trauma and the life of the individual but some of common effects include:
- Flashbacks/intrusive memories
- Shame and self-loathing
- Self-destructive behaviours
- Physical symptomes, chronic pain, headaches, digestive issues
- Feeling numb
- Coping/avoidance strategies such as disordered eating or drug/alcohol use
Working with trauma in an integrated way
As trauma affects all levels of the person and their functioning, it is important to work in a multi-faceted way. Often the first place to start is by restoring the body’s capacity to feel safe. After a traumatic event or situation the endocrine system (your hormones) and your brain chemistry have adjusted to make you feel as if you are in continual danger. You are constantly in fight/flight mode and find it impossible to truly relax. Sometimes the line between the past (where the trauma happened) and the present can become blurred, especially during flashbacks- which can feel as if the trauma was happening now.
Approaches such as HeartMath, yoga and breath-work help to regulate your autonomic nervous system (ANS) and allow you to feel calm and safe again in the present. We work to establish a secure connection with your own being and an experience of being solidly grounded in the here and now.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) can also be very effective in assigning the traumatic memories to their proper place, in your long term memory storage- where they will not continually invade and intrude on your daily experiencing. Unfortunately at this time we are not yet able to offer EMDR treatment, but hopefully we will in the future.
Herbal medicine has a lot to offer when it comes to ANS support and can help with calming the system.
Once you feel a little safer and the anxiety has decreased somewhat it can be helpful to explore the trauma and process it psychologically, especially if its nature was complex and interpersonal (rather than say a natural disaster or car crash). If the trauma happened during childhood then often your attachment (ability to trust and relate to other people on an equal basis) has suffered, and working with a therapist over a longer period of time can be helpful to bring out your capacity to trust and open up in relationships.
In therapy we will look at how the things that have happened to you in the past affect you in the present and work on multiple levels to heal the wounds that you have incurred. Trauma, especially if it happened in childhood, has profound effects on the beliefs we have about ourselves and others. Often developmental trauma results in deep rooted shame and self hatred, the belief that somehow you are defective, and the expectation that you will continue to be hurt by others. Working in therapy can help you adopt a different response to these habitual self-beliefs and, ultimately, change the beliefs themselves!
Understanding is the first step, followed by healing on a cognitive, emotional and experiential level.
This refers to the idea that the immense challenge of adversity provides an opportunity for growth. There is a slight risk in sounding offensive here, as some people might feel that “growth” is a bit too much to ask for and normal functioning would be plenty, thank you very much. But it is possible that really facing the truth of what happened, and moving beyond it, will offer you a deeper and richer experience of life. Winning a staring match with the demons in your basement will reward you with a sense of freedom and openness, as well as a different take on what is important and a clearer sense of what your purpose and positive vision is for this life.