Understanding Trauma

Jan 26, 2021

BPS Staff

By: Laura Miller, LMSW

Previous blog posts, Understanding Anxiety and Understanding Depression, both discussed the significant impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had on mental health. For months, society has been faced with unparalleled levels of uncertainty, significant loss and oftentimes, inadequate resources to cope. Now, research suggests that the ongoing stress from the coronavirus pandemic may lead to the development of trauma responses. Research also shows that receiving support as early as possible, is critical for minimizing the long-term effects of trauma. Keep reading to better understand trauma, recognize signs and symptoms and learn ways to cope.

What is Trauma?

Trauma results from exposure to an incident or series of events that is emotionally-disturbing or life-threatening. Traumatizing events can be directly experienced, witnessed or learned about from others. When an individual is exposed to a traumatic event, a person’s coping capabilities can become overwhelmed and one’s sense of safety and security can become entirely disrupted.

Effects of Trauma

understanding traumaWhen an individual experiences danger, the body’s “fight-flight-freeze” response is triggered to help the body prepare to defend itself against the threat. However, an individual who has experienced a traumatic event(s) may continue to experience this defense response in non-threatening situations. This is an entirely normative response; the “fight-flight-freeze” response can get “stuck” and not function as properly when it doesn’t know how to process disturbing information. Furthermore, out of care, the body and brain can stay in “defense mode” making every effort to protect against future risk. However, developing hypersensitivity and vigilance to potential risk can leave individuals feeling disconnected from the present moment and inadvertently lead to more suffering.

In addition to developing a hypersensitive “fight-flight-freeze” response, individuals may also experience intrusive memories of the event, actively try to avoid thinking or talking about the event or avoid the people or places associated with the trauma, experience negative changes in thinking and mood, as well as changes in physical and emotional reactions. Click here to review a list of common symptoms.

Research also demonstrates that traumatic experiences can change the brain and alter certain phsyiological responses. For example, prolonged trauma exposure can decrease the volume of areas of the brain responsible for cognitive functions such as short-term memory and emotion regulation. There is also a growing body of research to suggest that trauma exposure can increase one’s risk of developing physical health problems such as chronic lung, heart and autoimmune diseases.

Ways to Cope

1. Be non-judgmental. Everyone responds to trauma differently and there is no “right” or “wrong” way to think, feel or respond after one has experienced a traumatic event. Develop a non-judgmental attitude toward your own reactions, remembering that your response is a normal reaction to an entirely abnormal event. Additionally, let go of any preconceived notions that you shouldn’t ask for help. Reaching out for help is a sign of strength and it’s never too late to ask for help when you need it.

2. Allow yourself to grieve. Whether or not a traumatic event involves loss of a loved one, as a survivor of trauma, one must learn to grieve with the loss (at least temporarily) of one’s sense of safety. A natural reaction to this loss can be grief! Allow yourself to experience sadness and acknowledge that it makes perfect sense to be feeling this way.

3. Get your body moving. Trauma disrupts the body’s nervous system and can paralyze individuals in fear and arousal. Give your body the opportunity to reset its nervous system and release physical arousal through movement. You can start small with stretching or going on a short walk and then increase from there. You can also self-regulate your nervous systems through relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation. Taking care of your physical health is critical, as having a healthy body can help support your ability to cope with stress.

4. Stay connected to others. Oftentimes, if you’re experiencing symptoms of trauma

there can be a tendency to withdraw and isolate from others. You may feel too exhausted to talk and spend time with others, however staying alone can make things worse by not providing any distraction from thoughts and memories about the trauma. While you don’t have to share any details of the trauma with others if you don’t want to, it’s important to turn to trusted individuals and feel like you can share your emotions without judgment.

understanding trauma5. Engage in pleasant activities. You might not feel up to doing anything, but begin by making a list of pleasant activities that you might enjoy. If you need help brainstorming, begin by thinking about the past; what did you like to do before you experienced the traumatic event? Try to pick a few things to do even when you don’t feel like it. It’s important to develop distractions and engage in activity entirely unrelated to the traumatic event.

Healing from trauma is possible. Human beings are incredibly resilient and with the proper support can learn to cope with even the most unimaginable and horrific events. However, recovery from trauma takes time and if months have passed and you’re continuing to experience symptoms, you may need professional help. There is a wealth of research to support the effectiveness of evidence-based-treatments for trauma that you can read about here. Do not hesitate to reach out for more support when you need it.