What is Trauma?
Trauma is really a generic term that gets overused today and this can lead to misunderstandings, especially when it comes to counseling and treatment of people who have experienced traumatic events that have seriously disrupted their lives. Stressful events of all kinds are experienced in different ways by different people. How we handle and manage these events today is largely tied to the previous experiences that we’ve had in our lives and how we’ve gotten through them. Stress can become traumatic when it exceeds the persons ability to cope, manage and integrate the experience into the mind and memories.
Stress and the Senses
Stressful experiences hit all of a person’s senses, sight, sound, smell, taste and touch and what some refer to as our sixth sense; our body. Different areas of the body respond to each of these inputs, sending signals to the brain that are then combined into a coherent memory. This is the normal brain’s way of building a memory that we can reference at a later date and it isn’t always negative experiences. For example, riding a rollercoaster or rock climbing can be extremely stressful but also very enjoyable. Conversely a severe car crash or watching a loved one pass away are very distressing.
Some people will choose to put themselves into very stressful situations or professions because of the outcomes that are possible from the experience. Firefighters and servicemembers choose to expose themselves to high levels of stress as a part of their personal calling. Race car drivers and extreme sports athletes put themselves at great risk of harm for the pursuit of sport. These types of backgrounds provide the body with a sort of training for managing high levels of stress.
Yet even here, stress can still become overwhelming. This is especially the case in situations where things get out of control or control of the situation is taken away. Stress becomes traumatic when the individual can no longer pull the sensory inputs together into a complete and coherent memory. Different areas of the brain can respond in ways that cause conflict in the mind and when this is combined with loss of control, the effects can be devastating.
Survival Instincts – Fight, Flight or Freeze (feigning death)
Humans are generally equipped with three fundamental responses to stress, fight, flight and freeze. Stress responses involve a mix of activity in the nervous system from the brain and hormone activity coming from various areas of the body. Most of us are familiar with adrenaline that revs us up; these combine with hormones like cortisol that increases our alertness. Our past experiences train our bodies and minds to respond in different ways to different types of stress, increasing our ability to manage them.
A fight response is often associated with things like threats. When we experience a situation that we perceive as a threat to ourselves or others, the fight response helps us to counter and manage that threat. For example, if we see a dog running at a child, the fight response may be to put ourself between the dog and the child. This response doesn’t necessarily need to be a physical fight itself, it may be verbal or positional just to counter a potential threat.
In other types of situations, flight can be the preferred or more appropriate option. An onrushing car or a falling tree are examples where getting out of the way is a much better option than standing one’s ground. And again, this won’t necessarily be a physical reaction – it can be choosing to not respond to a verbal threat or otherwise avoiding a given situation.
As the stress level increases, freeze or feign death can come into play. In response to extreme fear, some will just stand and scream. Some people will faint in certain situations. Studies have found that in response to some types of threats, the body and mind respond with a sort of extreme relaxation where muscles relax, the mind may seem to slow time, breathing slows and in some cases may even stop. These are all examples of the freeze or feign death response.
In each of these responses, the body and mind are acting in concert. As a team, the mind and body are working in a cohesive and coherent manner towards a single purposeful response. Even though it may be an extremely negative or painful experience, there remains a clearly coherent system in place. But what happens when part of the body says fight, part says freeze and the mind says flee?
When Stress Becomes Trauma
Trauma is an experience where the mind and various areas of the body become in conflict with one another in their response to the event. It can often occur when other factors are in control of the situation, eliminating our ability to engage in the stress response needed for the situation. How does one flee from a plane or car that is crashing? How does one fight an assailant with a weapon? How does a child know how to respond to an adult who has power over them? How does a person who has been hurt so severely emotionally, physically, sexually, verbally, or just plainly raised in an extremely high stress household know how to respond?
These types of situations cause tremendous inner conflicts. Should I have done this or that? Should I feel this way or that way? And the answers are different depending on which part of the mind and body is providing the answer, just as those parts conflicted at the time of the experience. The memory of the experience becomes fractured and the mind just can’t figure out how to file it away.
Inevitably, this situation can lead to a variety of negative consequences. Depression, lack of confidence and a very negative self-image are common. Panic, anxiety and hypervigilance are also frequently experienced. In extreme cases, dissociation can even occur. Because of the inability to put the experience away in the mind, the survivor of trauma continues to replay the experience in the mind, to evaluate the response to the event, and to blame his or herself for an outcome that was out of control.
Survivors of trauma will often seek out counseling but displaying the above symptoms, every label in the book comes out. If lucky, he or she will find a clinician that has a background with trauma. If not, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder and if the survivor gets completely open an honest, schizophrenia may even be diagnosed. Quite frankly, all the symptoms and criteria are there; it’s not as though the clinician is deliberately trying to retraumatize the survivor but in many cases, it happens. Trauma survivors will typically go through three or more counselors before finally finding the one that can help put the pieces back together.
In the next article, we will begin looking at how the trauma process happens.
Holistic Counseling Services, LLC and Life By Design Counseling Services
specialize in the treatment of trauma.