Trauma is one of the most difficult things to understand, and can be even harder to explain to others. People who have suffered trauma don’t always recognize when they are having a trauma reaction. But they know when they are uncomfortable. It’s hard dealing with a traumatic past. It’s also challenging to explain it to the people who are often confused by isolation, flashbacks, and self-destructive behavior. This blog will explain trauma, how to recognize it, and how to explain it to your loved ones.
Two Types of Trauma
Essentially, there are two major types of trauma: life threatening trauma and trauma that is recurrent. Obviously, there is more to it than this, however we are keeping it simple today. Think of life threatening trauma as natural disasters, public shootings, car accidents, etc. Recurring trauma isn’t always threatening to the physical body, although it can be. Think more like emotionally unavailable parents, neglect, or verbal abuse over the course of years.
Despite the trauma that occurs, both the body and brain respond in a particular way. Although the trauma might be over, the mind and body often still behave as if the trauma is ongoing. When someone is reliving the memories of the trauma, the body responds similarly to how it did during the danger.
Let us imagine a teenage girl who was kicked out of her parent’s home. She was dropped off in the most dangerous side of town and told to make it on her own. She is now an adult who managed herself a good life but is haunted by the trauma of being abandoned. When reflecting on that day of being abandoned by her parents, her body responds the same way it did all those years ago. Perhaps her shoulders are tense, eyes weepy, her hands begin to sweat and her heart rate elevates. Her body forgets that she is safe in the present moment as she is otherwise teleported back to that horrific day.
Trauma on Repeat
Traumatic memories can be difficult to manage as they can play on repeat without consent. Trying not to think about something often causes the thought to become stronger and more difficult to control. When people replay traumatic memories over and over, our bodies continue to endure the stress it did during the original incident and our brains are used to replaying those memories on loop.
To quote Van Der Kolk, MD (2014) in The Body Keeps the Score, “If you feel safe and loved, your brain becomes specialized in exploration, play, and cooperation; if you are frightened and unwanted, it specializes in managing feelings of fear and abandonment.” The more we reply traumatic memories, the more we will think negatively about ourselves. The more we think negatively about ourselves, the more stress we hold in our bodies. This stress can lead to isolation, substance use, self harm, emotional outbursts, and much more.
While the memories of trauma are uncomfortable, it can be even more uncomfortable to not think about them. When you hear, “neurons that fire together, wire together”, that means that we get so used to thinking a certain way that our brains don’t know another way to think. Training your brain to think differently can be as difficult as training our bodies to build muscle. You just have to endure the discomfort to achieve desired results.
Healing Starts When You Are Ready
Therapy such as EMDR and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help disrupt old ways of thinking that are destroying your body and reinforcing negative patterns of thinking. Others means of stopping these thoughts and relaxing the body are yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices. These methods teach us how to observe a thought or sensation in the body without trailing off with it. Instead, we learn how to let is pass by like a cloud in the sky and focus on what you can control, like your breath.
It is possible to leave the past in the past. Sometimes we just have to convince our minds and bodies that the trauma is now over and allow healing to begin.