Often people think of trauma as major life events, usually involving injury or death, such as war, vehicle collisions, workplace incidents, and sexual assault, and so they might not realize that less obviously impactful situations throughout life can also trigger trauma responses within us that influence our day-to-day interactions.
These include childhood experiences such as:
- a parent or primary caregiver who is unable to meet our needs, even for very good reasons
- one or more family members with drug or alcohol abuse problems
- being a minority (through race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or some other reason)
- critical teachers or harsh coaches
- loss of someone important to us
And experiences in adulthood such as:
- unhealthy personal relationships
- job loss or difficulties
- financial challenges
- isolation or loneliness
Trauma is not what happens to you, but what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you
Over our lifetimes we build up a kind of internal database of things or situations that we perceive to be threatening, as well as things that are pleasurable. The threatening category is tagged as a higher priority. For example, if you have a tag that says you like raspberries, and another tag that says hungry bears can be dangerous, when you look out the window and see a bear eating raspberries, the response that would better serve your survival would be to attend to the danger signal, rather than the pleasure signal in that moment.
Problems can arise when faulty tagging occurs, applying the danger tags too much or not enough, or confusing past threats as being in the present, or imagining future threats.
This can look like:
- feeling stuck
- depressive symptoms
- anxiety symptoms
- boundary issues – too porous or too rigid
- problems at work
- relationship difficulties
- being reckless
- sleep disturbances
- nightmares or distressing dreams
How can trauma be resolved?
Trauma is the result of a lifetime of accumulated experiences; therefore the treatment of trauma involves working to update outdated tags and create new pleasurable ones to help rebalance the nervous system. Whilst the ability to selectively delete memories doesn’t, yet, exist the brain has neuroplasticity throughout our lives, which means it can change. In essence the goal is to build new pathways centred on helpful, positive experiences, to correct any faulty pattern matching. Memories that produce a trauma response in the present day can be reprocessed so that even though the event isn’t forgotten, the emotional content and associated physical responses can be detached so that the memory can take an appropriate place in history, as something that is in the past rather than a present-day threat.
Of course, there still needs to danger tags, so that we don’t casually stroll in front of an oncoming vehicle or touch a hot stove element. Trauma work is about tuning in to internal and external signals and being able to notice the effect they have on our minds and bodies, accurately identify them, and then being able to rationally process them appropriately and be able to increase distress tolerance. For example, public speaking might trigger some big fear responses for many people however the probability is that it is unlikely to actually be harmful to them. The work involves becoming curious about the origins of this fear tag, being able to recognize it, and working towards alternative responses and acknowledging that whilst it might not be enjoyable, it is survivable. Each time a new positive pathway is built, it weakens the default aversive association.
I draw upon well researched approaches such as Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) and Internal Family Systems (IFS) to explore with individuals areas of their lives that may be influenced by trauma responses and help them to develop practices through which they can achieve:
- improved self-regulation
- more balanced approach to life
- feel more self-confident
- set flexible boundaries
- be open to new opportunities
- achieve their full potential