Trauma & therapy
"Trauma" has become a popular word lately, and whilst it's always good to have more people talking about mental health, there's also some misunderstandings going on. In this article I'll explain what trauma is and how therapy and counselling can help people recover. Trauma is a big topic so this is just an overview - do get in touch if you want some personal support.
What is trauma?
Carolyn Spring - author, therapist and abuse survivor - describes trauma as
"an event that changes our neurobiology because we experience life-threatening powerlessness".
A traumatic event is something that we are unable to cope with, which is why the same event might affect people in different ways - it is about how we process, cope with and recover from what's happened. Experiencing trauma puts our nervous system into a threat response; a brain that has experienced trauma works differently to a non traumatised brain. The mind and the body are both affected by trauma.
Important: Trauma is not just being upset or distressed. These states are, unfortunately, parts of life and whilst they are unpleasant they do not have the same lasting impact on our neurobiology. I've heard people say that they are "traumatised" by events in their life that were simply difficult. To call ourselves, or others, traumatised when we're not can be victimising and unhelpful.
PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) is when symptoms of experiencing trauma (see below) do not go away after a few months or your daily life is severely impacted. C-PTSD is complex PTSD and this diagnosis may be given to someone who has experienced several traumatic events.
What causes trauma?
Potentially the list could be endless here as it depends a lot on the individual. When you hear the word 'trauma' you might immediately think of something like being a car crash or terrorist incident. And you'd be on the right track as these could well be traumatising for those involved, but it's not just big, dramatic life events that can cause trauma. Here are some other examples:
witnessing harm to someone else
physical or mental abuse
on-going stressful or dangerous situations
relationship trauma (usually in childhood, affecting relationships in adulthood)
loss or bereavement
unwanted/unexpected life changes
Remember - these things are not inherently traumatising, it will depend very much on the individual. We cannot guess or know just from looking at someone how they have been affected, only they can say and only certain types of mental health professionals can diagnose (e.g. Psychologists).
Signs and symptoms
After something awful has happened it's completely normal to struggle and take a little while to recover and get back to your normal, this is just being human. But if any of the following happen a lot or for a long time after the event then it could be trauma:
anxiety and feeling 'on edge' at lot (nervous system in hyperarousal)
consistent low mood or depression (nervous system in hypoarousal)
dissociation - 'zoning out', feeling disconnected from your mind/body
increased negative thinking; catastrophising and low self esteem
feeling unsafe in situations that, objectively, are OK
suicidal thoughts and feelings
The good news is that recovery from trauma is possible - most people need some kind of help and support. Essentially it's about rebalancing the nervous system so it fully gets the message that the danger is over and you are safe now. This can take time and different treatments work better for different types of people.
In talking therapy, a trauma informed therapist should use psychoeducation to help you understand, from a nervous system and physiological point of view, what has happened to you. This doesn't need to be complicated science, just enough to help you make sense of why you feel the way you do. Mainly, the counsellor or therapist is there to listen to you, without judgement, and offer a safe space for you to process what you've been through together; it's the safe relationship that is healing.
There are many types of trauma therapy and sometimes a combination of a few different approaches is what works best.
Here are some other evidence based therapies:
Trauma informed yoga
Nature based therapies
Creativity & music therapies
If you'd like to know more about trauma, here are some resources:
The body keeps the score by Bessel Van Der Kolk
Waking the tiger by Peter Levine
It didn't start with you by Mark Wolynn
Check out the work of Gabor Maté and Steven Porges.
How I can help:
I am a BACP accredited, trauma informed counsellor. I offer counselling, 1-2-1 mindfulness sessions and nature therapy. You can find out more on my website and you can contact me via email: email@example.com