What is Trauma?
Trauma occurs when we experience a life threatening event or perceived life threatening event, such as a car accident, major surgery, fire, victim or a witness of a crime, natural disaster, sexual assault, abuse, terrorism etc. Our brain and body experiences a characteristic response to trauma, which in the initial moments that can save our lives. After the event has passed and we are returned to safety, we can still experience symptoms from that initial traumatic event. These symptoms are not about personal weakness or failure. In fact, these symptoms are a very human reaction in the face of trauma. It is important to realize that these symptoms are a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.
At Time of the Traumatic Event
The initial trauma is registered in our reptilian brain, our most evolved, developed part of our nervous system. This is our fight or flight response. When this system is activated our body responds immediately before our thinking brain makes sense of what is happening. We run, fight, freeze, and maybe even collapse in the face of life threatening events. Our body decides what is safest for us to do to survive and sometimes that doesn’t always make sense to our thinking brain. To survive our bodies are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol to prepare our muscle to fight or run away. Our breathing is rapid and shallow and we become highly focused on the threat. In fact, in the face of threat you won’t be able to distract yourself.
Once the Traumatic Event is Over
When the traumatic event ends, we are relieved, but we also might notice other things start to happen or change in us. We might shake physically or get the shivers. This is your nervous system discharging the physical energy and reaction of the event. This is a primal reaction and can help recovery and healing. Once we return to safety, our thinking brain – the meaning maker – starts to try and make sense of what has just happened. “Why did this happen?”, “Why to me?”, “ Why did I react that way?”.
In the first month after a traumatic event our brains and bodies try to process what has happened. This is not a linear process or a checklist, instead it is a complex physical and emotional response system. Afterwards, we might notice that we:
• Relive the event, either thinking consciously about it or by intrusive thoughts, dreams, or nightmare.
• Have a physical reaction to certain triggers, such as anxiety or panic when seeing something/one that reminds you of the event
• Avoid things related to the event (where is happened, media, certain people)
• Have problems recalling parts of the event
• Feel detached from others and/or numb
• Are hypervigilant – feeling ‘on alert’, ready, or on the lookout for danger
• Easily startle or jump
• Have sleep difficulties (falling and/or staying asleep)
Other symptoms include:
• Feelings of anger, outbursts, and irritability
• Loss of pleasure in things
• Not being able to relax
• Feeling unsafe in general
• Feeling different or changed from before the traumatic incident
• Feeling others or the world around you has changed in a negative way
• Feeling hopeless
• Difficulty concentrating
• Physical symptoms such as aches and pains or muscle tension
Trauma Symptoms are Normal
These are normal symptoms, part of our human condition that we experience in the face of a life-threatening or traumatic event. Just think about the magnitude of experiencing an event that threatens your life and very well being. It would be impossible not to be affected.
For many these symptoms will start to fade and resolve within the first 30 days or so, which is clinically called Acute Stress Disorder. After that there may be some lingering symptoms that should continue to improve. If symptoms last longer than 30 days or aren’t improving, it would be beneficial to speak with a professional as these symptoms might develop into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A professional will help you to process the information so it moves from being relived to relieved.
Evolution Psychology Center will continue to post about trauma and things your can do to help resolve the symptoms. Stay tuned for future posts.