Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event(s) that overwhelms our ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes our sense of self and the ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences. A traumatic event can be pronounced – a single event (a car wreck, sexual or physical abuse, domestic or family violence) but it is also subtle, more nuanced – a cumulative affect over time of not getting our emotional needs met by a primary caregiver. While we typically think of trauma as something being done to us, it is also the absence of something not consistently given to us. We are always asking, either implicitly or explicitly, of another: Do you hear me? Do you see me? Do I matter? It is through our close relationship with a primary caregiver that we learn to trust, manage our emotions and to interact with the world – through this relationship we conclude whether we see the world as a safe – or dangerous place, and our body responds accordingly. Research shows that repeated exposure to traumatic events early in life changes our physiology, so that we vacillate between states of hypervigilance – being stuck on high alert, feeling on edge – and a state of shutdown – feeling disconnected, dissociated, and numb. Our body, continuing to hold the residue of past trauma, remains stuck, in chronic anticipation of danger.
Whether you have experienced a single, pronounced traumatic event, or have suffered a series of more nuanced, cumulative traumatic experiences over time, there are universal clues that inform you of your body’s state. Typical clues that your body is in hyper-arousal (fight/flight response) and may be reacting from a past traumatic experience are feelings of being braced, on edge, startling easily, having nightmares, being prone to road-rage, or over-reacting to someone stepping ahead of you in line at the grocery store. These events are confusing because long after the experience has past, it can be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and it feels like we are overtaken, high-jacked by our body’s response.
Signs that you may be stuck in hypo-arousal (freeze response) is having a sense of being removed, like you are watching from a distance, and not reacting to events that would otherwise be considered alarming – a divorce, job loss, or death of a loved evokes surprisingly little response. Others may complain you are emotionally disconnected – “impossible to reach”. Difficulty creating or maintaining personal relationships, being forgetful or preoccupied when around others, and not feeling a sense of connection are also signs you may be reacting from a past traumatic experience.
The resolution of trauma is possible, and transformative. The shift from a traumatic state to a peaceful state allows you to experience a life of vitality, spontaneity, openness, a felt sense of connection to others – and to live your life with a sense of purpose and meaning.
“Being traumatized is not just an issue of being stuck in the past; it is just as much of a problem not being fully alive in the present.” Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score
Stay tuned for the next installment!