Updated: Nov 27, 2020
What is Trauma Anyway?
It's a word we hear all the time, but a topic that we maybe don't speak about enough. Trauma in general is an emotional and/or physical reaction to an event or ongoing experience that is beyond our ability to cope. Experiencing trauma can have long lasting effects on a person’s ability to feel safe, ability to regulate their emotions and navigate interpersonal relationships. The symptoms of trauma can be emotional and they can also be physical due to the constant triggering of the nervous system, often leading to digestive issues and sometimes chronic conditions related to stress and irregular levels of cortisol seen in trauma survivors.
Types of Trauma
Acute Trauma: a single incident that is completely overwhelming for us, such as a car accident, a traumatic death, a sexual assault, witnessing a violent crime, a workplace accident, or experiencing a natural disaster.
Complex Trauma: this occurs when a person has experienced chronic trauma over a long period of time, months and often years. It is often interpersonal (as opposed to something being witnessed or an event) and ongoing. People experiencing complex trauma usually have little or no control over their situation and are completely trapped. It can include child sexual assault, child neglect, intimate partner violence, and living in a war zone.
Intergenerational Trauma – is untreated pain passed down through generations. This has been seen to a devastating effect here in Canada where it’s common among children of survivors of the Canadian residential school system and their communities. This type of trauma was also noticed with children of holocaust victims. It can be seen in individual families too, when the emotional and unspoken burdens of our parents and grandparents take their toll on us.
The Four Threat Responses: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn
Our brain, specifically our limbic system, does a great job in scanning for and responding to threats. It will activate our sympathetic nervous system to get our body ready to run (flight), to fight, or in really threatening situations it will go into freeze, by putting our slow down system or parasympathetic nervous system into overdrive. The fawn response is the last of the four trauma responses where instead of freezing, we go into an appeasing or codependent state that can leave traumatized individuals extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
When we have experienced trauma, especially trauma in our younger years, those fear responses can become very sensitive to triggers. Our brain just doesn’t recognize the difference between a trigger and a real threat and for some people they can become stuck in what seems like a permanent fear response that is often seen in folks with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Other symptoms often seen include flashbacks of the trauma, that may appear in small nonlinear fragments, as often our memory is impaired (our brain’s way of trying to protect us) at times of overwhelming emotional stress. There may be nightmares, insomnia, depression, trouble concentrating, numbness, a reliance on substances or alcohol to escape distressing thoughts, and sometimes feelings of intense shame. There is no “normal” way to react to traumatic events, they are, by their very nature, outside of our scope of understanding and the way individuals react to trauma is as unique as the experience of trauma itself.
Trauma Informed Counselling
You might have seen the phrase “trauma-informed” as you’ve scrolled through the websites of therapists (yes, including mine) but what does it actually mean? Well it’s a statement that is designed to demonstrate that as trauma counsellors we are aware of the possible emotional and physical effects of trauma and the prevalence of different types of trauma. We understand the importance of safety, the importance of figuring out exactly what safety is; and we are knowledgeable about the neurobiological impacts of trauma and we have strategies and approaches that can help with nervous system regulation. Most importantly, in my view, is that we appreciate the uniqueness of trauma, the importance of the individual experience of it, the strength of those who survive it, and the hope for better.
Though it can be difficult to reach out for help, especially for trauma that happened many years ago, it is never too late to get support and never too late for healing. Trauma counselling is a process of finding safety, understanding the triggers that your nervous system reacts to and the different parts of you that have developed to try and feel safe. Those parts of you are often very young and it can take some time to build up trust and connection between you as you are now and the younger inner parts of you.
In trauma counselling, we work on this connection and we spend time finding ways to cope with distressing emotions and thoughts. For some people it can be important to openly talk about the trauma itself and for some people they would rather just work on how it affects them in the present. There is no right or wrong way – it’s whatever is needed by you and it is at whatever pace you are comfortable with. If you have any questions about trauma counselling, please get in touch with me on firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my trauma counselling services page.
Thank you for reading.
Helen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.
Registered Clinical Counsellor
North Vancouver, B.C.