What is Trauma?
In a world in which frightening and distressing events happen on a regular basis (ie., accidents, destructive storms, terror attacks, playground bullying, relationship threats and violence), trauma responses are fairly common and can lead to, or underlie, a number of problems including anxiety, PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), depression, and substance abuse disorders. Did you know…
- A traumatic event is defined as any single event or set of ongoing events that result in intense distress and overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope. But what does that really mean? In reality, psychologists have come to understand that trauma is in the eye of the beholder – any situation that triggers the physical / biochemical fight-flight-freeze response, is interpreted as an overwhelming threat to either physical or emotional survival, and elicits feelings of helplessness or powerlessness can result in traumatic injury.
- There are “big T traumas” including sexual or physical assault, war or terrorist violence, and natural disasters. Most people recognize the validity of these events as traumatic stressors. There are also “little t traumas” like being bullied or painfully teased, not receiving enough parental support and validation in childhood, or emergency medical procedures that leave an individual feeling frightened and helpless. People tend to minimize “little t traumas” – individuals who experience the events often tell themselves they shouldn’t be feeling distress because it “really wasn’t a big deal,” and / or well-meaning loved ones often tell them they need to “get over it” or “just move on,” both of which only lead the survivor to feel more distressed and alone.
- Individuals who have experienced traumatic injury often have trouble functioning at school or work, experience difficulties in their close relationships, and struggle with re-experiencing the trauma in the form of unwanted / intrusive thoughts or memories, nightmares, or flashbacks in response to cues that remind them of the traumatic event.
- Experiencing distress after a trauma is not a sign of weakness, and it doesn’t mean you’re “crazy,” as survivors, unfortunately, often tell themselves or hear from others. In fact, in his work, “Healing Trauma,” Peter Levine, PhD explains that the minute we perceive a threat our response (fight/flight/freeze) is instinctual and biological – it is a hard-wired, automatic response we share with all mammals. In a complex, biologically-driven series of biochemical events, when we are able to fight or flee, our bodies and brains are able to encode, or understand, that we have survived and the threat is over. When this occurs, traumatic injury is less likely to result. It is when we aren’t able to fight or flee, and either freeze or are prevented from fighting back (ie., protectively held down on a medical stretcher), that traumatic injury is most likely to occur, because we aren’t able to complete the act of physical survival, leaving the event stuck both in our minds and in our bodies (for more, see the link to Trauma 101, below). There’s nothing weak or crazy about that – it’s just our biology and how we have evolved.
The great news is psychotherapy can be helpful in resolving and healing traumatic injury, allowing trauma survivors to enjoy a high level of functioning and well-being after treatment. Based on extensive clinical research, EMDR is recognized as among the most effective and efficient forms of treatment for traumatic injury, and is just one of many treatment options at Radiant Being Psychological Services, PC.
Here are a few resources to view regarding this topic:
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