What is Trauma?
At Insight Matters we have 55 talented psychotherapists, psychologists and counsellors. We are proud our therapists come from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, the neurodiverse and LGBTQ community and are passionate about supporting our clients on a wide range of issues.
Along with supporting our clients through counselling and psychotherapy we also want to help them become more informed and assist them to take charge of their own mental journey through psychoeducational articles written by our therapists.
Dave Phillips is one our psychotherapists and he has a special interest in grief and bereavement, trauma-informed therapy, and existential issues. He also works with people preparing for, or recovering from surgery.
Trauma can be a bit of a scary word…
In my experience it is a word that is frequently misunderstood, and it is a word that many of us veer away from, as it makes us uncomfortable. When we think of trauma we think of big, disruptive events. We see trauma on the news or in films, when there are catastrophic events or violent assaults.
We are less likely to see the things that happen in our own lives as traumatic. Even when there are events that are terrible, we tend to try to contain our own trauma, we try to smother it, and quieten it down. We often hope that the past will stay in the past and we can just carry on, but sometimes that doesn’t work.
I hope by the end of this you’ll have a better understanding of trauma, that it will seem a little less scary, and that you will have a better idea of how to get help if you need it.
What is trauma?
Simply put, trauma is what happens when we are overwhelmed to the point that we are no longer able to process or integrate what is happening.
There are several ways this can happen. It can happen as a once-off traumatic event like being in a car crash, being physically or sexually assaulted, experiencing a severe illness, or being in a disaster or warzone. Even being a witness to these kind of situations can be overwhelming. These potentially life-threatening events can lead to what is often referred to as ‘Capital T’ or ‘acute’ trauma.
But trauma can also happen through smaller events over time. ‘Small t’ or ‘chronic’ trauma can occur in a variety of situations such as living through a time where you are neglected or abused, living through health scares, bereavements, relationship breakdowns, or living with financial instability. The build-up of these smaller events that cause us prolonged periods of stress can overwhelm us in much the same way.
It is important to note that not all people who go through these circumstances, whether ‘Capital T’ or ‘Small t’ experience trauma. Sometimes we can go through very difficult experiences and find a way to process and integrate that experience outside of a therapy room, or we can have symptoms that slow down after a few weeks. However, when symptoms persist then therapy can be a very valuable option.
How does trauma show itself?
With ‘Capital T’ trauma, the link is often more obvious. We might experience flashbacks to the specific event, or find ourselves having recurrent nightmares connected to it. We might get on edge, or hypervigilant, when we find ourselves in similar circumstances. There are often feelings of anger or depression. It feels as if what happened is intruding on our day to day existence, and stopping us from living our lives as we wish we could. We can fall into addictive behaviours to try to counterbalance these feelings.
With ‘small t’ trauma it can be more difficult to see. People will often say ‘I don’t know what is wrong with me’. We can feel suddenly, inexplicably anxious or depressed. Or we might find ourselves over and over failing to set out what we achieved. It can be easy to see ourselves as weak or broken, and to grow frustrated and resentful with ourselves.
For all trauma survivors, one of the clearest ways we can see the impact is in our relationships. If we have been through experiences that have overwhelmed and hurt us, it makes sense that there is a certain reluctance to trust in people. We might assume that they will abandon us, or that they cannot be counted on, or that they cannot comprehend us. We might find it tough to maintain healthy, trusting relationships and that can lead to a sense of isolation.
How can counselling and therapy can help with trauma?
At the very heart of therapy is the connection between the client and the therapist. Working with a therapist to explore how trauma affects us is a slow and careful process. While telling our story may be part of therapy, it is not simply a case of recounting the event, doing that can often make us feel overwhelmed once again.
Working with trauma in therapy involves getting familiar with our own set of warning signals, so we can recognise when we are getting close to feeling overwhelmed. It involves learning exercises and ways that we can self-regulate, to bring our own emotions and thoughts back down to a level that feels manageable.
This way, over time, it begins to get easier to explore the trauma at a pace that feels safe, and to find creative ways to integrate it into our lives. Because we are doing this with a therapist, it is also a really important way to rebuild trust and connections, which allows us to have more meaningful relationships and to step out a cycle of isolation.
Dealing with trauma is undoubtedly one of the toughest things we can do. At some point we come to a stage where the potential risk involved in confronting trauma outweighs the pain of trying to keep it contained.
The good news is that when we go through this process, we can learn a whole new set of skills that can be applied in many areas in life. Researchers refer to this as ‘post-traumatic growth’, and it is important to keep in mind that we are naturally resilient, and that given the right circumstances and knowledge, we can move through very painful situations in life and come out the other side with a sense of strength and possibility.