Why Trauma is so, well, Traumatizing (and what we can do about it)

Triggering.  It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. You hear it in relation to trigger alerts on college campuses. You also certainly hear it in relation to rape, war and child abuse. But despite it being more commonly known than in the past, most people don’t really understand what it is or what it is like to experience trauma. 

For those suffering from trauma, whether a single-incident trauma like a car accident or childbirth, or more pervasive childhood trauma, it is disorienting at best and crazy-making at worst.  It can lead to lost weekends of binge drinking, with marriages destroyed and jobs lost. To understand trauma, you have to understand a little bit about the brain.

It all starts with the flight/fight response.  When we are in danger, our capacity to think, including planning, analyzing and seeing the bigger picture rapidly goes out the window.  We have gone into survival mode. Blood flows out of our brains into our heart, arms and legs, literally preparing us to run or fight.  A more primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, kicks in. This part of the brain is the emotional memory center of the brain.  It is also the brain’s smoke alarm.  The amygdala has memories, but not storied memories with a beginning, middle and end.  In fact, the amygdala doesn’t even have words, or a sense of time.  So, when the amygdala gets activated which it does in fight/flight, it does so with extremely strong emotions propelling the person into unreflective action mode, or in even more severe circumstances, into deer-in-headlights freeze mode.  The amygdala is also hyperalert after trauma, activating often whenever there is a sensory event even vaguely similar to a sight, sound, smell or body sensation from the trauma.  When the amydala is activated is does so with a feeling of immediacy as if the traumatic event were happening right now all over again.  Shards of sensory memories  like visual flashbacks or bodily sensations roar to the forefront of consciousness along with such traumatic beliefs as “I am in danger” and “It is all my fault”.  Making this all the more confusing and discomfiting, these sensations are completely disconnected from the actual, fuller trauma, and may not even be recognized as traumatic.  Instead, the person often thinks they are just losing it. This is a trigger, and it’s not remotely fun.

The big “T” traumas like rape, child abuse or on the battlefield often result in nightmares, high startle response, emotional dysregulation and a pulling away from various reminders of the trauma in the world at large in attempts to avoid them.  But small “t” traumas like ongoing verbal abuse also pay a very heavy toll.  These kinds of trauma often escape under the radar for even being traumatic, partly because they are woven into the person’s model of the world and partly because there isn’t a single dramatic event to look to and so, “Yes, this is trauma”.  Both types of trauma are, well, traumatizing, and create low self-worth, high guilt, an inability to regulate emotions, feelings of lack of safety, and the inability to just go about your day in relative peace and calm. I personally, have been affected by the lower “t” kind of trauma, and understand how being triggered feels like the “truth” instead of a body memory of the past.  I am also grateful that effective help is now available.

Women, even more than men have been disproportionately affected by trauma.  While most survivors of war trauma are men, a greater majority of women have suffered from abuse at the hands of others, largely, but certainly not exclusively, family members ranging from parents to partners to siblings, coaches and teachers, and, yes, even health care providers.  Women also suffer trauma from childbirth, usually when there are birth complications and the mother does not receive the emotional support that she needs during this challenging time. Regardless of gender, trauma causes great suffering as the ability of the brain to cope with stress is overloaded, and then later struggles but fails to recover from the assaultive stress.

Fortunately, there are effective trauma treatments available now.  This was not always the case, even as recently as 20 years ago.  But now, researchers and clinicians understand how the brain works, and what the brain needs to reright (and rewrite) itself into health. Individual and group therapies have both proven effective in providing the raw materials needed to nudge the brain towards its own self healing. Usually, treatment involves some form of telling a more healing story about the trauma as well as a desensitization and reprocessing of the trauma event in the brain.

If you have suffered from any kind of trauma, I hope that you seek the help that you need and deserve.  Life is brighter without the lens of trauma clouding your life.  It’s like the scene from the Wizard of Oz when the picture goes from black and white to living color.  And what a difference that makes!