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Life A beginner's guide to trauma

Jul. 27, 2020
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Anyone reading this has probably suffered from trauma. Some of you know it, and some of you don’t. Regardless, life can be a shit sandwich at times, and odds are you’ve taken a bite out of it or it’s taken a bite out of you. As one of the world’s foremost experts on trauma, Dr. Van Der Kolk, says, “trauma is a fact of life.” 

Our psyches are sensitive little buggers, and experiences that are middle-of-the-line in terms of being dramatic or tragic can still cause long-term physiological and behavioral changes. Trauma doesn’t just belong to war veterans or people who have seen their parents murdered. Trauma belongs to your mother and your grandmother. Trauma belongs to the people you pass on the street, the people who make your food, the people who write your favorite books and movies. It belongs to celebrities and athletes, to the doctors who treat you and the politicians who represent you; it belongs to your bosses and employees, and it belongs to the people who teach you and your children.  

Trauma belongs to children, too—and the adults they grow up to be. It belongs to the girl who saw her father cheating on her mother, to the person who hit someone with their car, and to the pedestrians who witnessed it. It belongs to the young adult who got cancer and to his loved ones who care for him. Trauma belongs to the people who live with addicts or abusers, to those who are bullied, humiliated, and rejected. And of course, trauma belongs to war veterans, and the children who saw their parents murdered, and the millions of people around the world who have experienced apartheid, and forced migration, and genital cutting, and rape, and other experiences that humans should never have to experience. Trauma can be caused by any number of things, and it can affect any type of person. 

It can also act as a ripple effect, circling out from those directly affected by trauma to their loved ones and beyond. Whether directly or indirectly, trauma affects you. Death, taxes, and trauma are the three certainties—and just like death and taxes, trauma is difficult to understand, unique to each person, and has the potential to ruin your life. So it’s safe to say that learning about it and coming to terms with it is pretty important.

Can you use it in a sentence?

All this talk about trauma and I haven’t even defined it yet. As previously mentioned, trauma is difficult to understand—because it’s difficult to define. While the APA defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster,” it doesn’t quite do this disorder justice. It isn’t just an emotional response, but a psychological, mental, and physical response. Trauma can literally alter physiology and genetics. In his book The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body In the Healing of Trauma, Dr. Van Der Kolk says “After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system that has an altered perception of risk and safety. Long after a traumatic experience is over, [the brain] may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones.” So there you go. 

Trauma can also be passed down from generation to generation, creating an endless cycle of pain to be lived over and over again. Trauma defines people’s lives: it keeps them stuck in the past, terrified of the present, and numb to the future. Sharing trauma can also bond people to each other, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. But trauma can also cause necessary introspection, self-analysis, and self-awareness. It can cause people to help others and create positive change in the world. Trauma is both bad and good, simple and complex, and it means something different to every person. So defining it isn’t the key—but knowing that it has many meanings and impacts is. 

The results are in...

If there were a test that one could take to determine how a traumatic experience is going to affect them, the possible results would be limitless. We each have different beliefs, values, experiences, upbringings, backgrounds, and biologies influencing how we might respond to a trauma. 

While there are some fair representations of trauma on TV, I fear they’re either too few and far between, or not explicitly stated as trauma responses. Those that are explicit typically have a narrow scope, keeping to the APA’s short description of symptoms: ‘“Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.” While these symptoms are perhaps the most common, or the most reported, they’re just a scratch on the surface. I can name more off the top of my head:

  • Substance abuse/addiction
  • Sexual promiscuity
  • Acute anxiety
  • Jumpiness
  • Hallucinations
  • Numbness of the body and mind
  • Risk-taking and impulsivity
  • Rapid mood swings
  • Inability to focus
  • Bouts of rage
  • Reliving of the trauma
  • Memory loss

This is important for people to know because they need to know that whatever they’re feeling or experiencing is okay. Hurt comes in all shapes and sizes—and so does help. Sometimes just knowing that someone else is experiencing what you’re experiencing helps. Just like knowing there’s a wide array of possible solutions to what you’re feeling helps. (Resources listed below!) 

Trauma in the time of corona

A change this drastic takes some getting used to, requires a lot of reassurance and self-care, and might even result in a few breakdowns. And that’s okay. There hasn’t been a pandemic since 1918, so there’s a lot of confusion, uncertainty, fear, pain, and suffering. What’s happening right now is a traumatic event, plain and simple. 

It isn’t my intention to further freak people out by saying this, but as discussed throughout this article, it needs to be recognized. Take some time to grieve and be sad and even angry, but then start to address how this event is traumatic for you, how it might affect you and those around you, and how you can manage and treat your symptoms.

Ideas for dealing:

  • Stick to a regular schedule as much as possible.
  • Unless under quarantine, get outside and exercise at least once a day.
  • Take a news break every three days to maintain sanity.
  • Avoid excessive substance abuse if possible.
  • Talk to family and/or loved ones frequently.
  • Be kind to yourself.

General resources

For all the things, check this out.