Updated: Feb 21, 2020
Trauma is one of the biggest health related crises of our time, and many of us are walking around with emotional and physical symptoms we have no idea are connected to it. Tell me if any of this sounds familiar: “I’m doing the self-care, reading the self-help books andgoing to therapy, why can’t I just love myself?” “I’ve been to my GP, seen a specialist, and tried acupuncture, why do I still struggle with this chronic pain they can’t seem to figure out?” Or maybe, “Why do I feel so stuck, even though I want to move forward so badly?”
I want to start by affirming that you are not alone. So many of us are feeling frustrated and confused in our day to day lives as we to navigate the desire for love, connection and joy alongside of the fear, shame and pain we have endured trying to receive it. Sometimes the things keeping us from what we want have roots in unresolved trauma. Let’s take a look at the basics to see if this might be a missing piece in your healing journey.
Simply put, trauma is anything that overwhelms our capacity to cope. This goes beyond our psychology and into our physiology. Trauma can disrupt and overwhelm our autonomic nervous system, creating a long list of challenges in our minds and bodies. These symptoms can affect our everyday lives in pretty significant ways if left untreated. Many of us will associate the word trauma with what we define in our field as shock trauma, or “big T” trauma. A shock trauma is often a clearly defined one-time event such as a car accident, assault, or situation wherein our life was threatened, or was perceived to be threatened.
Although this accounts for a percentage of traumas, there are far greater numbers of people struggling with the effects of developmental/attachment trauma, or “little t” traumas. Developmental trauma derives from abuse, neglect and misattunement from our caregivers throughout the lifespan. These may be less clearly defined and chronic. By definition these repeated traumas occur in developmentally sensitive times when our minds and bodies are still growing and forming. These traumas still alter our nervous system and other body systems like shock traumas do, but they may also alter or disrupt our sense of self and our ability to relate to ourselves, others, and the world in healthy ways.
Many trauma survivors have experienced both kinds of traumatic experiences in their lifetime. Developmental trauma or the combination of these traumas can result in what’s called C-PTSD, or complex- post-traumatic stress disorder. This is a relatively new diagnosis emerging from research that has helped us better understand how trauma affects us psycho-biologically. We may be more familiar with a diagnosis of PTSD, which tends to reflect the symptoms resulting from shock- based traumas.
Why is this important? Trauma and its effects are a lot more common and widespread than we may currently understand as a society. At the same time there is a lack of training about how these symptoms really affect both mental and physical health, as well as how to treat it. Because of this they tend to be missed or dismissed by health care professionals and even by some therapists. Cognitive, or “talk therapy” alone is not sufficient to heal trauma, yet it widely being used to treat it. On top of that, most models of therapy designed for trauma treatment best treat shock related trauma. While this can be helpful with some symptoms it misses addressing the complexity of our identity and sense of connection to the self that is brought into the picture with developmental trauma. For true healing it is important to be able to address trauma holistically.
We will get more into this in future posts. For now, let’s keep talking about how trauma may be showing up in our minds and bodies:
· anxiety, panic or activation in the body (increased heart rate, shortness of breath, muscle tension)
· anger, rage or underlying irritation
· an overwhelming sense of shame or self-hatred
· physiological conditions such as chronic pain, headaches, digestive issues, trouble sleeping/ staying asleep/ feeling rested
· feeling on edge, or startled easily
· feeling shut down, numb, with little energy or life force
· not feeling “in” our bodies, or disconnected from ourselves
· uncomfortable somatic sensations in the body: a pit in our stomach, a restriction in our chests or throats, a sense of heaviness or blocked energy
· sadness and depression
· intense fears around specific things/experiences, or a constant underlying sense of fear
· emotional or physical difficulties that arise in relationship with others
Some commonalities in experience may be:
· feeling hijacked by these symptoms, with a lack of clarity on why they are occurring or how to turn them off
· seeking help and treatment from several doctors for physical pain/ ailments just to be told they can’t find a definitive cause
· seeking help from therapists with limited progress, even though you’ve talked through your experience many times
· facing similar challenges in different relationships, without knowing why, or how to produce different results
· a deep and long-lasting struggle with self-esteem and feeling worthy/good enough
There are many more ways that the body and mind are affected by trauma, the above list is not exhaustive. It also varies from person to person. I have had some clients who say, “well I was never hit how could my symptoms be related to trauma?” Or, “I don’t think my experience was bad enoughto cause these kinds of things…” Developmental trauma can be less visible, and easily minimized in our society. It can result from witnessing trauma happening to others even if it never happened to us. It can arise from repeated misattunement from our caregivers. Misattunement can occur when a caregiver is not able to adequately meet or tend to our emotional and physical needs. We may grow up then in an environment that reinforces we can’t or shouldn’t have needs, or that it is actually unsafeto have them. Similarly, there may have been a caregiving relationship where there is a repeated sense of unsafetyto be oneself, to trust ourselves or others, or to connect to ourselves or others in meaningful ways. In more overt ways we may have been verbally and emotionally abused, habitually belittled, manipulated or unseen. The list goes on. These repeated experiences can be extremely detrimental especially as young people learning to navigate and relate to the world, and whose brains are still forming. It is important to note here that each person may experience the same trauma in different ways. Even family members in the same home may react differently to the same experience depending on age at the time of onset, personality, biology, and access to support. Your experience and response to that experience is valid, even if others have made you to feel that they are not.
The good news is that there is hope. There have been incredible advances in our understanding of trauma and the treatment of trauma in the last few decades. We are still learning all the parts of the brain and systems in the body affected in the wake of trauma, and that’s why it is so complex. If you feel that you may be experiencing the results of trauma I would encourage you to connect with a therapist who has specific trauma training to help you assess and navigate what is going on. If you’d like support in that, or would like a future post to tackle that, please let me know. Trauma can be deeply personal and deeply painful, but with the right support, we can have the life we are truly wanting for ourselves.
Healing is possible.
Until next time,