The impact of trauma occurs on various levels and can interfere with a person’s ability to function in daily life, affecting relationships, work, physical and mental health as well as personal development. How a person responds to trauma is dependent on so many things, including how pervasive and prolonged the trauma was, the context in which it took place (family setting, school, work etc) and type of life experiences before and after the trauma was experienced, particularly in regard to the amount of appropriate care and support the person received.
Traumatic events can happen to anyone. They can cause a range of reactions, some of which are normal, involving distress but for some people the reactions may last longer or be more severe leading to a range of reactions such as hypervigilance, being easily startled, disturbed sleeping patterns, heightened levels of distress, and flashbacks to name a few. Any person who has experienced a traumatic event(s) will know how debilitating it can be, including negatively impacting upon the ability to function in daily life, affecting relationships, work, physical and mental health as well as personal development. Trauma can cause a variety of problems including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance misuse, risk taking behaviours, anger management difficulties, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and dissociative disorders. Whilst this list is not meant to be exhaustive it helps to show that each person responds to trauma differently.
Types of trauma
Severe traumas (otherwise known as "big-T" traumas) include repeated, prolonged, overt physical and sexual abuse as a child, as well as disasters, conflicts or wars and violent crimes. However, sometimes a child may have a general perception of neglect, loss, deprivation or lack of appropriate parental care; these experiences are often referred to as "small-T" traumas. Yet both types of trauma, as well as single-incident traumas such as a car accident, can result in severe symptomatology for the person to the extent that the trauma continues to intrude in their life. For example, they may experience flashbacks, a sense of reliving the traumatic event, hypervigilance to reminders of the trauma, sleep problems, loss of appetite, irritability, anxiety, nightmares, difficulty concentrating, avoidance of triggers that remind them of the trauma, feeling detached from and not trusting others, anger problems and other symptoms not mentioned here.
Experiencing a traumatic event
When people experience a trauma, they automatically attempt to survive it by using their natural, survival instincts which are body led, rather than conscious decisions made by a ‘thinking brain’. What this means is that behaviours during a trauma will be guided by the nervous system, Hyper (fight / flight) and Hypo (freeze / submit) arousal. However, in order to engage these behaviours, the ‘thinking brain’ (controls executive functioning is shut-down in order to allow the body to respond appropriately. As a consequence although the trauma is survived there may be little or no memory of the event, although body sensations connected to the experience can remain. Thus, after the traumatic event is over, people continue to experience frightening, somatic (or body) disturbances such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, heart palpitations, cold sweating, ‘jumpiness’ or hypervigilance without knowing the reasons why, or that they are responding to events and feelings from the past. This can then lead to symptoms as described above. If not treated appropriately, long-term experiencing of the somatic disturbance, and the above symptoms, can lead to fatigue, exhaustion, sense of hopelessness and the sensation of constant threat and danger, including the desire to run, fight or freeze as an instinctive response a stressful situation is experienced.
Where there has been repeated prolonged trauma, we often find that a person has traumatic responses that include more than the typical post trauma symptoms. These complex posttraumatic response patterns are best understood as a spectrum of conditions rather than a single disorder. People with complex posttraumatic responses often have difficulty regulating their emotions, experience problems in their relationships with others including lack of trust, hostility and a sense of emptiness, struggle with perceptions of self, and the world generally seems frightening leading to a constant state of readiness.
Complex trauma therapies
We believe that traditional talk therapies are not enough to address the somatic and emotional legacy of trauma. Therefore, in our practice we use a range of modalities to reprocess key elements of traumatic events. There is no requirement when using these therapies to request a full narrative recall of the event. In other words, it is possible to process the traumatic event without telling the whole story; something many people with traumatic experiences spend most of their time trying to avoid. Not surprisingly they can often avoid therapy as well for fear of having to “tell the whole story”. Instead very gentle and empowering techniques, including mindfulness, help the person feel in control of their trauma related body responses. Thereafter, they are helped to rework emotional responses and meaning-making associated with their long-term physical sensations.
Learn more about Complex Trauma and Dissociation
Please feel free to get in touch with us to discuss Complex Trauma and Dissociation. More information on Complex Trauma and Dissociation is available from the European Society for Trauma and Dissociation, alternatively, read more about Howard Psychology psychological therapies.