When we hear the word trauma we often think about a big event like; abuse, neglect or a car crash, basically a big bad thing that has happened. Although these examples are indeed traumatic events, trauma is a much more expansive experience.
We can all recall an event when we did not feel seen or heard or had our boundaries violated. That is a part of life as we know it. When we experience big emotions without receiving guidance about how to process them, we are forced to deal with them internally. If we don’t resolve these overwhelming feelings, our nervous system gets “stuck” and our body might respond in the form of a trauma response.
The trauma brain
Brain research shows that changes can occur in our brain as a result of trauma. When we feel threatened, violated or experience a shocking event, we instinctively send signals to others for help. If help is not forthcoming while the danger remains, older areas of our brain will go to work, the so-called emotional brain. This brain consists of reptilian brain and mammalian brain. We then switch to a primitive way of survival; flee, fight or freeze. The motor of these reactions are our stress hormones.
When someone is traumatized, the stress response becomes chronic. As a result, the alarm system in the brain becomes incorrectly adjusted. This causes us to be on high alert.
4 types of trauma reactions
Trauma responses can be roughly divided into these four types of responses:
This reaction feels like you are experiencing the traumatic event again. You suffer from flashbacks: you might see, smell, hear, taste and feel everything again as when it happened. When you think about the event, you can feel anxiety, start shaking and sweating and you can no longer breathe properly.
No longer allowing thoughts or feelings that have to do with the event. You block out important moments of the event or you avoid talking about subjects related to the experiences. You might also withdraw; you don’t want to see anyone anymore, you don’t feel like doing anything or you want to stay in bed all day.
Negative thoughts and feelings
Your interest in (former) valuable activities has decreased significantly. Your feelings for yourself or others have become dulled and you feel less connected to life.
Strong irritability or hyper-activation
You might suffer from gloomy feelings, crying fits and you are often constantly tense. You experience difficulty falling and staying asleep, irritability, outbursts of anger, excessive wakefulness, or concentration issues.
How to unlearn trauma responses
- Become aware of them
Many of us don’t even realize we are experiencing a trauma response. We might think some family members just have a way of getting under our skin or that we are simply uncomfortable in certain situations. Try tuning in with how your body responds during the day.
- Talk about your trauma
Instead of worrying, try to talk about what you are experiencing with people you can trust, such as family members, friends or people who have experienced the same.
Writing is an effective way to process trauma. Fearful thoughts are often avoided and when we do talk about our trauma, we prefer to keep what bothers us most to ourselves. Studies have shown that journaling appears to help people better cope with the symptoms of PTSD, such as anxiety and anger.
Light exercise like going for a walk or doing some yoga helps you to clear your head and to lower the stress levels in your body.
- Seek professional help
As we understand trauma and its effects better, many forms of therapy emerge to choose from besides traditional therapy. What works for one person may not necessarily work for another. In order to choose the right therapy for you, it is in any case a good start to know which different types there are available for you.
One day at a time
Healing from trauma takes time and can be challenging at times. It’s okay to be scared and feel overwhelmed when starting to address some of these symptoms. Old feelings might resurface, and you might feel resistance when applying changes in your life. Be gentle with yourself and remember that healing is not linear, but in the end very much worth its efforts.