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Mental Wellbeing Dictionary: T For Trauma

By S Sandhu

On a cold winter morning in January 2020, right before the whole world came to a standstill due to Covid-19, I woke up one day with intense pain in my tailbone area. A few months later, my arm literally became stuck to my side and I wasn't able to hold even a butter knife without excruciating pain. Then began a wild goose chase of finding the right doctor and right treatment. Weeks of painkillers later, nothing had helped. It got progressively worse until I wasn't able to sit or lie down without excruciating pain.

By November 2020, I was sitting at my naturopath doctor’s office, complaining that I was at a complete loss about how I had dislocated my tailbone and torn my rotator cuff, without getting “injured”. I didn’t remember falling, or lifting something heavy or doing any activity that could have impacted me in such a way. What my doctor said to me next, changed the course of my life in a way that I had never imagined. All he did was ask me a simple question, “why do you think that bodily injuries can only be caused by external impact or some sort of physical accident?” It was like a light bulb suddenly came on in my head and shone so bright, that I instantly knew that what was happening to me was working inside out, and not the other way around.

I always had a nagging feeling that my mood swings, anxious worry, lack of trust and unexplainable lows had more to do than just having an off day. The feelings were not severe enough for me to take action but chronic enough for me to consider going to therapy off and on. I never went though. I just thought that because everything in my life seemed okay now, there really wasn’t anything that I couldn't deal with myself. Until, of course, I got stuck in a cycle of chronic pain that only kept getting worse. Every couple of months the pain would crop up in a different part and my body had, quite simply, just shut down. After the visit to the naturopath’s office, I finally made an appointment to see a therapist for the first time. At our first meeting, she wasn’t surprised at all that my body was in chronic pain for ‘seemingly’ no reason. After a few sessions of confiding in her about everything that I felt was holding me back in life, the diagnosis was surprising - Complex Trauma. Trauma? Me? No way. Sure, I had a difficult childhood, some really scary experiences and complex relationships but it surely wasn’t traumatic…...was it? Isn’t trauma something that happens to people who have seen incredible violence such as war or physical abuse or someone who has experienced extreme circumstances like the death of a loved one? Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk, an industry leader in studying and treating trauma says “one does not have to be a combat soldier or visit a refugee camp to experience trauma. Trauma happens to everyone, to us, our friends and our neighbours. Trauma affects not only those who are directly exposed to it but also those around them.”

What is Trauma?

Fundamentally, trauma is an emotional, physical and mental response to an adverse event. The severity of response may vary depending on the type of adverse event that occurred as well as the individual who experiences the event. Common long term reactions include flashbacks, strained relationships, unpredictable mood swings among others. Common physical reactions include nausea, headaches, chronic pain and auto-immune diseases. Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk states that traumatic experiences, however small or big, leave long-lasting traces on our minds and emotions, our capacity for joy and intimacy and even on our biology and immune systems.

It’s important to understand that trauma is a subjective word and correct diagnosis involves peeling off multiple layers to get to the source of trauma. What one person deems as “traumatic” may not seem so to another, or vice versa. The definition of trauma that resonated with me most comes from Gabor Mate, a renowned addiction and trauma expert who defines it in the most articulate way, he says that trauma is not what happens to us, but what happens inside of us, because of what happened to us. The imprint of trauma is the feeling we hold within ourselves when something traumatic happens to us. We continue on with our life as if we can never let that feeling go and are subconsciously trapped in it, without even realising it.

There are also different types of trauma that impact an individual. Broadly there are three types of trauma.

Acute: It mainly results from experiencing or witnessing a single distressing event, such as an accident, physical assault, or natural disaster. The event is extreme enough to threaten the person’s emotional or physical security and activates the fight or flight response until the event is over. The event creates a lasting impression on the person’s mind. If not addressed or resolved through medical help, it can affect the way the person thinks and behaves.

Chronic: It happens when a person is exposed to multiple, long-term, and/or prolonged distressing, traumatic events over an extended period. Chronic trauma may result from a long-term serious illness, sexual abuse, domestic violence, bullying, and exposure to extreme situations, such as a war. Several events of acute trauma, as well as untreated acute trauma, may progress into chronic trauma. The symptoms of chronic trauma often appear after a long time, even years after the event. One of the most damaging impacts of chronic trauma is that the sufferer remains in a permanent state of heightened fight or flight response. The fight or flight response is an automatic physiological reaction to an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening. The perception of threat activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers an acute stress response that prepares the body to fight or flee. In the right situations and doses, this response is imperative to cope with real and perceived dangers.

Chronic trauma however traps a person in the fight or flight response in such a way that daily life itself becomes an act of survival, rather than something that we live, thrive and find joy in.

The symptoms are deeply distressing and may manifest as labile or unpredictable emotional outbursts, anxiety, extreme anger, flashbacks, fatigue, body aches, headaches, and nausea. These individuals may have trust issues, and hence, they do not have stable relationships or jobs. Help from a qualified psychologist is necessary to make the person recover from the distressing symptoms.

Complex: It is a result of exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events or experiences. The events are generally within the context of an interpersonal (between people) relationship. It may give the person a feeling of being trapped. Complex trauma often has a severe impact on the person’s mind. It may be seen in individuals who have been victims of childhood abuse, neglect, domestic violence, family disputes, and other repetitive situations, such as civil unrest. It affects the person’s overall health, relationships, and performance at work or school.

One can also suffer from a combination of the above-mentioned types of trauma. Whatever be the type of trauma, if a person finds it difficult to recover from the distressing experiences, they must seek timely psychological help. A qualified psychologist can help the person with a traumatic experience lead a fulfilling life. The way in which a person copes, recovers and heals from trauma is also a subjective experience. One person might require significant and specific therapeutic interventions while another person may benefit through self-care and mindfulness techniques. Comprehending trauma’s complexity- both as a person who experienced trauma as well as being around a person dealing with trauma- is a challenging task. It requires time, effort, a focused approach and immense self-compassion and acceptance.

My own recent experience with trauma therapy has hugely improved my day to day life. The most impactful benefit has been the awareness to understand that many of those behaviours that I thought were personality flaws, that I just had to live with no matter how hard I tried to change them, were actually coping mechanisms for survival that I had developed at a young age due to traumatic experiences. It also made me realise why I developed those coping mechanisms, and that it is possible to let them go. It is possible to live my life not always scanning my environment for danger or waiting for the other shoe to drop. They were important means of survival at the time but are not serving me any longer, because I am not in those situations anymore. I am slowly shifting focus from wanting to survive things to thriving, growing, trusting myself and letting go of the past. It doesn’t change the fact that I experienced those painful things but it feels like a huge weight off my shoulders to realise that it is something that happened, and I don’t have to live life as if I am still experiencing it. The painful memories and negative feelings do still crop up from time to time, especially when I am in a stressful situation or feeling overwhelmed, but I recognise now that they are merely my past fight or flight coping mechanisms at play, trying to protect me, but this situation is different and I can find a way to deal with it, without feeling helpless the way I did as a child.

It definitely takes a lot of work and willingness to face your deepest fears, and it’s also a process with many ups and downs. Unpacking and changing years of negative self-talk and beliefs takes time and a lot of energy. The value that it provides in terms of quality of life and the tangible ways in which you can see your life improve, however, is priceless! I have been extremely lucky in having found the right therapist too. Sometimes it takes a few tries before you find the right one, so don’t let any experience that wasn’t up to your expectation deter you. As my therapist says, you can’t walk ten years into a forest and expect to come out in five and that’s exactly what I tell myself if I ever feel like I’m not making enough progress. This healing process is all about truly befriending, accepting and loving yourself and like any great friendship, it takes time, compassion and trust to enjoy your own company, feel whole and focus on goals rather than just getting through the day.

I also want to recommend two books that I found most helpful in helping me understand myself in a way that truly changed my life. They highlighted how intricately the mind and body are connected. It was so inspiring to learn that the signs that one needs to address something in their life don’t always have to come from thoughts, actions or external outcomes, but that our bodies communicate it to us all the time.

  1. The Body Keeps the Score- by Bessel Van Der Kolk

  2. When the body says no- by Gabor Mate



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