What is trauma?
Trauma is experienced when the body and mind are overwhelmed by the impact of a difficult or horrible event. During a traumatic event our body and mind knows we are in danger and responds with a range of normal emotional and physical responses. However, when these initial responses continue for months or even years they can be debilitating and lead to long-term depression or PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
Trauma can occur as a result of a single event or a series of events. Experiences such as childhood sexual abuse, assault (as an adult or child), being in an accident, being involved in or witnessing a violent incident, domestic violence, bullying, a severe injury or illness, or bereavement (especially if it was sudden or violent) are all examples of traumatic events that may result in on-going trauma.
The impact of trauma
Typically, we respond to trauma with shock and disbelief which may then turn to anger and sadness. When our responses to the trauma are not resolved it is possible to experience a range of symptoms which can continue for many months or years. These symptoms can include feelings of intense fear or anxiety, feelings of helplessness, flashbacks and nightmares, feeling constantly alert or agitated or ‘edgy’, mood swings, poor concentration, fatigue, and ‘emotional outbursts’ for example.
What began as the body and mind’s helpful and self-protective response to an experience of trauma then becomes a severe, distressing and life-limiting condition that can interfere with everyday living. The mechanisms that automatically kicked-in when we were originally faced with the trauma have failed to switch off, leaving us feeling as though we are constantly in a dangerous life-or-death situation even though we know we are not.
Counselling for trauma
Speaking about the trauma in therapy is often unhelpful, at least to begin with. In working with someone who has experienced trauma I am keen to understand if speaking about the past trauma causes overwhelming and unmanageable feelings to surface. If this is the case, then it is probably too early to speak about the traumatic events and the initial focus of the therapy needs to be on emotional safety and “stabilisation”. This involves becoming more aware of the physical and emotional symptoms being experienced and learning how to interrupt the process, manage the symptoms, and understand the function the symptoms have served in managing the trauma experience for you. “Stabilisation” is reached when you can remember the past without being completely overwhelmed by it.
Recovery from trauma and post-traumatic experiences is achievable as long as the focus first is on safety, self-care and making positive and reparative relationships with others. Talking about the trauma can come later if necessary. In this way it is possible to become a survivor rather than a victim of trauma.