What is Trauma?

Trauma has become a hot topic more recently and we are talking about it more than ever in this modern era of science and technology. This is extremely important, as researchers have found that being exposed to trauma can have very far reaching consequences. Now, this isn’t the case for everyone, but this blog is designed to help those who have been exposed to trauma and who struggle to achieve a sense of safety, peace and compassion in their life. So what is trauma and some different skills to cope?

What we know is that being chronically “on edge” or “shut down” after the trauma has finished can really effect the way that we think, feel, and react. Our alarm systems can be extremely sensitive and we find concepts like relaxation or kindness terrifying. Because of this, we are at greater risk of depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, headaches, chronic fatigue, stomach issues, addiction, eating disorders, impulsive behaviours, and attention or memory difficulties. This has far reaching consequences, especially for our relationships. It can also effect our performance and satisfaction at work, which can grind away at our self-esteem and reinforce ideas that we are vulnerable and unsafe. It can also mean that we are frequently making appointments with the doctor.

So why haven’t we been talking about this all along? Well authors like Bessel Van de Kolk, Judith Herman, Janina Fisher & Pat Ogden believe it’s because as human beings, we are conditioned to hear, speak and see no evil. We find the darker aspects of human behaviour intolerable and overwhelming. We squirm and cringe when we are faced with horrific stories, mainly because we are at a total loss as to what we should do about it.

Because of this, survivors are left to do just that… SURVIVE. Obviously, when we have been overwhelmed and our senses have been hijacked, we are less likely to come up with super sophisticated ways of processing emotions and experiences. In conjunction with this, there is often considerable amounts of shame and guilt that surround stories of trauma and abuse. So, anyone would be forgiven for relying on their five survival parts. Let’s introduce the, Fight, Flight, Freeze, Submit and Attach parts:

Fight: S/he is the part of us that wants to keep us safe by relying on anger and aggression. This part pushes others away with violence and intimidation, hoping to dominate the threat and eradicate it.  

Flight: S/he is the part of us that wants to keep us safe by running away or escaping. If we are not up for the fight, then this is the part of us that just wants to get out. This could be by avoiding situations, using drugs and alcohol, or by withdrawing socially. 

Panic: S/he is the part of us that gets so overwhelmed in any situation that s/he just freezes. If there is no opportunity to fight or flight, she s/he will trigger somewhat of a panic response where we enter into a state of paralysis. This is usually until one of our other survival parts steps in to take over. 

Submit: S/he is the part of us that keeps us safe by being the good little girl or boy. This is the part of us that puts the needs of everyone in front of our own. S/he runs around trying to make things perfect in an attempt to reduce further conflict or trauma. S/he is quite depressed because his/her needs never get acknowledged. 

Attach: S/he is a very young part of us that is desperate for love and attention but is terrified of abandonment. This is the part of us can be quite clingy and needy, and often gets triggered when someone rejects us. 

These survival mechanisms are incredibly effective, however they are often younger parts of us that developed in childhood and adolescence when we didn’t have the hardware or power to cope in more assertive and sophisticated ways. This can be problematic as we progress through life, especially if we find ourselves in safer environments but still relying on our survival parts to cope with everyday challenges. It can also create difficulties in our relationships as adults if we prefer to fight, flight, freeze, submit or attach as opposed to relying on more helpful strategies that encourage us to compromise, assert ourselves and negotiate.

It is therefore extremely important that we get to know our survival parts, find out what they are frightened of, and learn how to re-assure them to increase feelings of safety in any given moment. From there, it can be really helpful to learn how our bodies react and respond, as this will cue us in to the survival mechanism being activated. Often, this isn’t obvious straight away as our trauma doesn’t get stored in the language part of the brain. Remember that most of our brain shuts down when we get frightened so parts responsible for logic, problem-solving and memory are offline. This can be why it’s so hard to tell our stories with words. Instead, we tend to react with our bodies and behaviour. Developing these skills can therefore allow us space to learn how to love our survival parts and take care of them as we move forward in life. This increases self-compassion as we learn to understand why we do what we do.

Here are some other strategies that can help us if our our survival mechanism are working in overdrive. Please remember that you don’t have to do this alone. There are a range of therapists out there to support and help you through this. 

  1. Create a safety plan or activities that you can do when get triggered or overwhelmed. These can be activities that distract you from whats going on (i.e. watching a movie), soothe you (i.e. having a hot shower, drinking a cup of tea or looking a the beauty in nature) or improve the moment (i.e. doing yoga, look for meaning or prayer).
  2. Practise your breath work. This is a basic but important part of managing intense emotions. When you practise diaphragmatic breathing, it communicates to the brain that you are safe and will encourage your survival parts to stand down. Remember it can take anywhere from 20 – 30 minutes to calm down when you are distressed so make sure you don’t give up on this technique too soon.
  3. Explore grounding exercises that anchor you into the present moment when you are triggered. The 5 senses meditation can be really helpful, requiring you to identify and name 5 things that you can see, hear, touch, taste and smell in any moment. Counting backwards from 100 in increments of 7 can also help.
  4. Explore and practise mindfulness. This is a way of life that encourages curiosity without judgement. It allows you to be, to notice, and to experience before making decisions or reacting.
  5. Sign up to yoga or other such activities. They encourage you to move and develop a relationship and awareness to your body.
  6. Work on your assertiveness skills as this will help in relationships and when conflict arises.
what is trauma

If this post has increased your feelings of distress or triggered you to seek help, remember you can call (Australia): Lifeline 13 11 14; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Mensline Australia 1300 78 99 78. You can also make an appointment with your GP and request a Mental Health Care Plan.

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