Why we all need to know a little about trauma

A few years ago, British television presenter Piers Morgan dismissed Lady Gaga’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

He said that only if you’ve been to war, that you’re allowed to use that term.

As a psychologist, I affirmatively call bullshit on that.

Trauma doesn’t only happen when you’ve nearly lost your life, or witnessed death or near-death happen to someone else.

Crises, losses and other unfortunate things that happen to you can lead to trauma.

In fact, studies done on communities — as opposed to in healthcare institutions — have found that everyday life events can lead to trauma symptoms. We call this small-t trauma, as opposed to big-t trauma.

Yes, this includes negative and neutral events. And then also positive events.

Take for instance, a promotion. On the surface, it may seem positive. But it may also spiral into a traumatic occurrence because it’s immensely disturbing for you.

And then you experience trauma symptoms such as always looking out for bad things to happen (i.e. hypervigilance); feeling as though you’re re-experiencing it over and over again, down to the smells and sounds (i.e. flashbacks); intense distress; thoughts that keep intruding into your head; physical effects like sweating, trembling and pain; and nightmares.

What’s really happening inside you?

Trauma disrupts the flow of our lives. This is how a generally optimistic person starts to see threats that don’t exist, and shut themselves away from the world. Maybe you know someone whose version isn’t as extreme, but you know something’s up. They’re a shadow of their old selves. This may be trauma at play.

Experiencing trauma means our nervous systems have become so shocked, they start operating in a Groundhog Day-type loop.

Trauma is how the past repeatedly plays out in your body over and over again in the present moment. And because the effects compound over time, our energy is further depleted, our sense of hope extinguished.

Psychologist Janoff-Bulman describes a traumatic event as something that shatters our world of assumptions. We all unconsciously operate under the beliefs that the world is a benevolent place, and that bad things happen to others rather than us.

But when something bad happens, our cognitive world shatters. We start to believe that bad things happen to us, and that the world is a dangerous place. Imagine going around feeling as though the world is against you. You look for threats, and you will find them. Or, believe that your heart beat is up, and it will go up— this is how people launch into panic attacks.

Getting back in-control

Understanding that trauma can also take the form of small-t trauma— meaning it can happen to any of us—  is key. And here’s precisely why instead of looking for a chemical explanation, we need to first ask “What’s happened to you?”.

When traumatised, we fear that we are the only ones going through this— this special unfortunate snowflake.

We isolate ourselves physically and/or mentally, and this lowers our immune health further.

Instead, when we acknowledge what’s happened to us— and it’s not a competition if someone else is ‘suffering more’ or has less resources to cushion the pain— we can forgive ourselves and start to make way for healing.

Trauma isn’t just about talking till the cows come home or the magic pill

Trauma lives in our bodies. When clients come to me saying they’ve been talking about their problems in therapy for 10 years with little change, this is because they’ve been over-analysing, leading to analysis-paralysis.

And whilst a pharmaceutical pill may help with some symptoms of trauma, or perhaps give you some stability back, that is merely the start.

Your pills also need to work on the correct brain chemical, and be of the correct dosage, in order to be effective. And then there’s all the getting used to the side effects to undergo.

Working with trauma really means teaching your brain and your body that you are safe now, and that you can create a safer future for yourself.

What do you do keeps perpetuating trauma?

“I was held at hostage by terrorists, but I loved that feeling”, my acquaintance George tells me. I look at him in half-fright, as he regales me with the tale of how he deliberately went into a dangerous situation.

Then he continues with other similar stories, and I feel so relieved he’s still alive.

But why does this happen? Trauma experts say that in some cases, our nervous systems get so shut down that we feel numb most of the time. And so we may deliberately engage in dangerous things in order to feel alive again.

This is also what dark personality types exploit in their abuse victims— after copious amounts of abuse (from them or from an earlier experience), their victims’ nervous systems get immobilised. And then when the active abuse deepens, this leads the victims’ nervous systems to ‘wake up’, which they might mislabel as passion or worse still, love.

There are four general trauma reactions:

  1. Fight- When we see threats that may not exist, or amplify them in our heads, and then pick fights.
  2. Flight- When we escape from reality or difficult situations such as conversations.
  3. Freeze- When we dissociate from our bodies, in order to numb ourselves from the pain of the situation.
  4. Fawn- When we play nice and obsequious, in order not to rock the boat.

Whilst these may have been useful in keeping us safe during the crisis, our brains and bodies go into a loop where this becomes muscle memory. These actions may no longer be adaptive, but we autopilot into them.

Being aware of how these four play out in our lives can provide part of the solution, because we can then commit to actively not doing them.

Building new pathways

When traumatised, the timekeeper in our brain thinks that then is now. So if the original trauma happened in 1971, when you are triggered, your brain doesn’t know that was 40 years ago. But your body, having experienced the continued pain and distress of these repeated triggers, is even more fatigued.

In working with trauma, it’s key to teach our brain that ‘then is not now’.

A very important one is by deep breathing, to reset our brains, update the clock in our head, and then activate our vagus nerve.

When breathing in, make sure your belly fills up with air like a balloon. And when breathing out, make sure you deflate your belly as thoroughly as you can. You know you’re breathing correctly when all your attention is focused on your breath— it feels impossible to summon attention elsewhere.

And 3-5 deep breaths several times a day will be useful. I often pair it with an essential oil such as lavender or vetiver to work on the primitive areas of the brain, in order to speed that up.

Also, if you’re in situations that keep triggering your trauma, ask yourself what can you do to take yourself out of them.

Finally, look to your future. If you’re tempted to keep doing the old stuff— because our brains always resist change, it’s not your fault— remind yourself what can you do to become the person you really want to be.

If you’re serious about treating trauma, please reach out.