Trauma and Its Effects
When we talk about trauma most people immediately begin to think about war veterans and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), a physical/sexual assault or being caught up in a major incident of some kind (a traffic accident, a terrorist incident, etc.). We tend to have a narrow view of trauma. Rarely do we think that the experience of trauma applies to our own lives. Somehow we reserve the use of the term for others, never ourselves. However, the experience of trauma is far more pervasive and widespread than you might think.
I want to get away from this idea that trauma is something that is only experienced in the most dramatic of cases. Trauma is a part of human existence and I don’t think anyone is truly spared from the experience.
While situations of war, childhood abuse, sexual assault, surviving a tsunami, plane crash or terrorist incident can quite obviously trigger a traumatic response, so too can being a police officer, a firefighter, a nurse or doctor and having to deal with ‘blue light’ events on a daily basis. Even going through a difficult divorce can be traumatising (I know from personal experience). The issue of relationships is really important when it comes to trauma. People who let you down by betraying you in a personal or social context can be deeply traumatising.
Don’t believe me? Well think about it! We are social creatures and rely on one another for support, care and comfort. When someone we love and trust lets us down it can leave us isolated, vulnerable and feeling battered – traumatised basically. Just think how many people (sadly, often successfully) attempt suicide after a failing relationship? Sometimes, when a person’s relationship ends, their world collapses and they are dealing with a whole host of emotions, not least among them are grief and loss. I have supported professional, highly qualified people who were hospitalised with severe and long term mental health issues following the break-up of a marriage. Break up can be nothing short of devastating, leaving people shell-shocked, incapacitated and in the midst of a nervous breakdown. I realise that everyone is unique and has different coping mechanisms but the reality is that we are all susceptible to traumatic experiences.
Western psychology often teaches that if we understand the cause of a given trauma or negative experience then we can move beyond it and return to our pre-trauma state. However, understanding does not always move us beyond the experience –sometimes other practices and approaches are needed. This is because unprocessed trauma doesn’t just get stored in the unconscious mind and memory, it also gets stuck in our physical body.
If we don’t take action to address the wounds caused by trauma they can create problems for us as we try to move on with our lives. Let’s take a look at why this is.
Trauma comes from the Greek word τραῦμα. It means ‘wound’ or ‘hurt’.
If trauma is a wound, then trauma is not something that just happens to people – war, tsunami, childhood abuse, car accidents, Covid-19 wards, divorce. Trauma is what happens inside of us as a response to an external event. That is why very often we carry the effects of trauma around with us. The traumatic event of itself is in the past, it is gone, but the wound inside us remains, and like any wound, if it is not treated, it can fester and create problems for us in the present.
Imagine you have a physical wound. When we have an injury to the body we take practical steps to care for it, to ensure that it doesn’t become infected. We clean the wound, apply antiseptic or antibiotic ointment to prevent infection. We cover and dress the wound to ensure it stays dry and clean to help it heal faster. We are aware that the wound may be sensitive to the touch and we are careful how we hold and use our bodies.
What do we do when we experience emotional trauma?
Generally, we tend to pick ourselves up and carry on as normal. We suppress our true feelings deep, deep down and the impact they have on us. We tell ourselves we are fine. We are okay to carry on. We are strong. But those feelings and experiences don’t disappear, they hang around in our unconscious and subconscious minds, in our bodies, and we end up carrying that emotional baggage that impacts our everyday lives. That emotional wound begins to fester and become infected.
If we think of trauma as an unhealed wound, that is open and raw, we can begin to get a sense of what some people are going through as a result of experiencing trauma and how they respond after a traumatic event.
How would you feel if someone came along and prodded an open wound? The slightest touch will inevitably trigger a painful and strong reaction. People who have experienced trauma may be emotionally sensitive and reactive. They may seem to react disproportionately to everyday stresses. But from their perspective they have a raw, open wound, which hurts every time it’s touched and the pain keeps getting activated.
Another way people may deal with trauma is to close down their emotions. They are carrying difficult emotions that they don’t want to face up to so the obvious choice may seem to shut those feelings down. The problem here is that we can’t pick and choose which emotions we want to feel and which we choose to switch off. We either allow ourselves to feel something or we don’t. If we shut down our uncomfortable emotions then all our positive and happy emotions get switched off too. Ultimately shutting ourselves off from our feelings can result in a separation from self and others, leaving us lonely and cut off from those we need most. Cutting ourselves off from our emotions can also lead us to become insensitive with a hard exterior, which again leaves us misunderstood and distant from friends and loved ones.
Another coping mechanism is to choose to numb our feelings completely through drugs or alcohol and that, of course, brings with it a whole multitude of other problems. Not least among them addiction and all the complications that brings with it.
Trauma is not something to be ashamed of, it is not a sign of weakness, and it is not a reflection of inner failing. It is simply a fact of life. Don’t ignore the emotional pain, the message that your body, mind and soul are giving you. Share your experience and hurts with a compassionate, non-judgemental professional who can help you to deal with a past traumatic experience and to go beyond the difficult feelings.
We are living in the present but deeply affected by the past – the past has an impact on our today and our tomorrow. The good news is that since we are carrying the pain and wound today, it can be reached, it can be healed and transformed.
Despite your emotional wound, know that the hurt can be treated and that scars will eventually heal. One of the healthiest ways to deal with past trauma is to incorporate mindfulness and meditation techniques that quieten our minds. The ancient practice of Kundalini Yoga can also help to remove blocked energy in your body, particularly helping to reset the fight or flight mechanism that is triggered by trauma.
More on that later……