Here are some of my words of what I know about trauma. Please see the resources page for resources related to trauma.
There are various types of trauma, from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), to Complex PTSD (repeated or many types at once), to intergenerational trauma, racial trauma, developmental trauma, relational trauma, and other disorders that are caused by trauma, such as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).
What is trauma?
Trauma is the (long-lasting) impact of an overwhelming event (such as abuse, violence, sexual assault, neglect, accident). The trauma makes an imprint in our body and brain. When we experience scary, disturbing, or overwhelming events, adrenaline and cortisol flood our nervous system and our brains and bodies automatically go into survival mode via fight, flight, freeze, appease, and/or faun. Trauma is when we continue to go into these survival modes even years after the event, when triggered by similar experiences, reminders, or even thoughts of the event. So, many of our behaviors are just defenses we needed during the traumatic event that aren't really serving us anymore.
What does trauma look or feel like?
Not everyone experiences trauma in the same way, and people do not get to choose their trauma response. This can be challenging, especially when someone is victim-blamed and judged for their trauma response. For example, a person may be blamed for not fighting or running during a dangerous situation because they froze instead. Since our brain gets flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, it is impossible for executive functioning, and our thoughts become clouded. This is why it is difficult for people to make 'rational' decisions when triggered or in a trauma state.
Dissociation is very common with survivors of trauma because it's a way for the brain to cope with stress. Dissociation is being disconnected from thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories, and not being aware of ourselves. It can be experienced as floating outside of our self and not feeling present or real. During a traumatic event(s), dissociation can help a person deal with stress by turning off the senses. But, later in life, dissociation may get in the way of our healthy functioning. Flashbacks are a common symptom of trauma, where even years after a traumatizing event(s), all of a sudden it feels like the event is happening again. Other symptoms of trauma include intrusive thoughts (of the events), difficulty remembering the event(s), and avoidance (of places, people, things, thoughts that remind us of the events).
Hyperarousal (anxiety, irritability, anger) and hyporousal (dissociation, depression, numbness, shutting down) are common experiences among trauma survivors. Hyperarousal and hypervigilance happens because our brains and bodies want to make sure that the event(s) won’t happen ever again. This might look like a heightened startle response or heightened awareness of surroundings, as well as sensitivity to noise or a bigger reaction, relative to the situation. It can also cause challenges with sleep, as well as other health issues and even physical pain. Our bodies hold our trauma.
How can we heal from trauma?
To heal trauma, building a sense of safety and empowerment is essential. We need to teach our brains and bodies that the trauma and danger have passed. Neuroplasticity allows for healing our neurons and neuro networks that were created to defend ourselves during the traumatic event(s). Strategies to make ourselves feel safe need to be repeated in order to re-wire the brain. And, since trauma is also stored in the body, the body can heal trauma through somatic therapy or body-based interventions. Movement and exercise are also important, especially to bring ourselves into the present moment.
Relationships are another way to heal trauma, both with ourselves and others, especially because of disorganized attachment that might occur (especially from childhood neglect or abuse). The relationship with a trauma-informed therapist can be healing and allow a client to practice earned attachment through unconditional positive regard and empathy, free of judgement. Click here to read how I work with trauma survivors.
Many survivors of trauma have trouble remembering the traumatic event(s) because of dissociation. It can be helpful for survivors of trauma to remember their trauma in order to stop possible unconscious repetition of the trauma. Creating a narrative of the trauma is important, even with the information that a survivor does have. It can also be helpful for trauma victims to tell their trauma story to a therapist, who can be a witness and an ally, especially because of stigma and shame that is often attached to the trauma. Memories that trauma survivors DO have are often visual or in nightmares, so talking about the images (or doing art) can be a good start. Before re-telling the trauma story, it's important to identify warning signs of dysregulation and trauma symptoms being triggered, as well as positive coping tools to regulate.
Narrative therapy can help with changing the narrative of being a victim into being a survivor and thriver. It can be helpful to grieve and mourn losses of things like hope, childhood, attachment figures. Stigma is a challenge with trauma, so self-esteem work can help.
Survivors of trauma can rebuild their lives, reclaiming a sense of value, learn how to have healthy relationships, and help others, like a wounded warrior, because we have the capability to heal. How do we know if we are healing from our trauma? One indicator is feeling more hope for the future, including making goals and plans.
Children and trauma
Alarmingly high rates of children in this country are experiencing trauma, especially by being exposed to violence. Children who experience trauma are impacted emotionally, cognitively, socially, physiologically, psychobiologically, and behaviorally. Abuse (physical, emotional, or sexual), and/or neglect by family members or in the home can be more traumatic (and confusing) because a child is supposed to be safe at home and with family. A child who witnesses domestic violence of parents can be just as impactful to the child as if they were abused themselves. Children who experience trauma can be more impacted because their brains are still growing. Their development gets impacted, making daily functioning and relationships challenging later in life.
Children's scars and developmental problems caused by trauma can be healed early-on and prepare children for healthy lives. Safe and trusting relationships, where a child feels protected, can heal attachment ruptures and build self-esteem and identity. Trauma-informed teachers, social workers, and therapists can make a huge difference in a traumatized child's life, especially if caregivers are provided with support. It might be difficult for children (and families) to discuss their trauma. This is where the expressive arts can be utilized. For example, it may be easier for children (and families) to make drawings or a sand tray as a way to explore and share their inner worlds. When working with children and families with trauma, we must earn trust with a trauma-informed, compassionate, and non-judgmental approach. The relationship that providers build with children and families is priority.
Low-income people of color in this country experience trauma daily, and are cumulatively impacted by it. These populations are more vulnerable because they cannot afford quality healthcare, food, housing, or education. These populations are also cumulatively impacted by trauma because of intergenerational trauma. This is the legacy of oppression and trauma that has been passed down through generations.
Our society (especially through media) labels low-income people of color as criminals. I disagree and believe that the public tends to put blame on individuals, rather than seeing that people committing ‘crimes’ are products of a broken system. I believe that this broken oppressive system wants to keep this population as a negative target because profits are made and power is maintained.
I have always known that my purpose in life is to work with these populations, because they are the most in need. I believe that it is important to tell the stories of the past and talk about intergenerational trauma and institutional racism to build resiliency. Silence inhibits healing. Telling these stories does not have to be only through speech. Metaphors and the arts are helpful in addressing intergenerational trauma, because trauma is often stored in the body and not the consciousness. People can connect with each other in groups by feeling similar body states.
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