Have you ever wondered why you do something or respond a certain way to another person? Curious as to why the same things or arguments keep happening over and over again. It can feel lonely, and confusing when we don’t know why we actually respond the way we do to certain stressors. Understanding our stories and how any type of trauma, whether it is a childhood trauma we have not healed from, or an event that happened to us as an adult, impacts our stories. When we know and understand our stories, we get to live our stories out. Understanding what trauma is, and how it impacts our story is the first step towards healing.
We hear the word trauma or PTSD a lot, and we typically think of a combat soldier coming back from war or maybe someone who has been sexually abused. Trauma is so much more than these two examples. Dr. Bonnie Badenoch describes trauma as “any experience of fear or pain that doesn’t have the support it needs to be digested and integrated into the flow of our developing brain and body.”
For an example of this, let’s look at our combat soldier, home from deployment. As a trauma therapist working with this population, I understand it is difficult to integrate back into society after experiences such as war. It is even more difficult if they happen to live in Clark County where fireworks are legal for the 4th of July. If our beloved soldier has not had the opportunity to deal with the effects of war and the fireworks start, there is a possibility he will be transported back to that moment on the battle field, and will not know the difference between present day, and the memory. This is an example of an unresolved trauma impacting the current story of our soldier.
Another way to look at this is we can think of trauma as a rupture in the inherent process of the neural integration of our ongoing experience. With healing arising through the initiation of an experience of repair or restoration so that the journey toward integration can follow its natural course. In other words, we are not going to change deeply until we engage with the experiences we have had in life.
You may be wondering, how do I even recognize if I have trauma in my life? To better understand how people respond to trauma let’s put it into two categories.
Big “T” trauma and Little “t” trauma. Big “T” trauma are experiences or events that overwhelm our ability to cope. Little “t” trauma is more of a chronic exposure to environments that are overwhelming.
Big “T” traumas are the events most commonly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) including serious injury, sexual violence, or life-threatening experiences. Threats of serious physical injury, death, or sexual violence can cause intense trauma even if the person is never physically harmed. Witnesses to Big “T” events or people living and working in close proximity to trauma survivors are also vulnerable to PTSD, especially those who encounter emotional shock on a regular basis like paramedics, therapists, and police officers.
Little “t” traumas are highly distressing events that affect individuals on a personal level, but don’t fall into the Big “T” category. Examples of little “t” trauma include non-life-threatening injuries, emotional abuse, death of a pet, bullying or harassment, and loss of significant relationships.
People have unique capacities to handle stress, we call that resiliency. Resiliency impacts their ability to cope with trauma. What might be highly distressing to one person may not cause the same emotional response in someone else, so the key to understanding little “t” trauma is to examine how it affects the individual rather than focusing on the event itself. So, when we have these symptoms arise it’s like they are our own private fireworks show.
Taking the time to understand how trauma events can limit our abilities to cope, we end up coping with what we call trauma responses or symptoms. Those responses have four clusters or categories. They are arousal, intrusion, avoidance, which is the most common, and negative thoughts.
Awareness of these symptoms is a step in recognizing we don’t have to live our lives in these places. Spend time evaluating your day and asking yourself some questions. Such as, is my initial response to something stressful to get irritated? Do I anger too quickly? Or am I too defensive? If yes or I think so is an answer to any of these questions, know you are not alone. According to the national center for PTSD “6 of every 10 men and 5 of every 10 women experience at least one trauma in their lives.” My hope is that this information starts a conversation with someone, and that there is hope for something different. We don’t have to let our story live us out, we can live our story out with help in the healing process.
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