Probably the clearest way to think about trauma is that it is any situation, whether one off or repeated over time, which is experienced as both overwhelming and inescapable. Of course this means that many life experiences may become traumatic.
We can go through even high levels of stress at times and, depending on our resilience and support networks, this may not become overwhelming. However we all have a point at which our ability to cope by keeping our thoughts and feelings connected and being able to manage emotionally, or to problem solve, breaks down. When this happens in an extreme way, stress has become traumatic stress.
Situations that pose a threat to our mental or physical health such as accidents, assaults, difficult medical procedures, even sudden bereavements may all be situations where our abilities to cope get overwhelmed while at the same time escape is experienced as impossible.
There are longer term repetitive and complex situations also which may frequently be extreme or, due to the repetition, ‘accumulate’ stress to become traumatic. Longer term complex trauma is often experienced through difficult childhoods, whether because of abuse or neglect or more subtle stresses such as being repeatedly invalidated. In adulthood, unsolvable stressful situations in which we feel stuck or trapped may meet this criteria as well.
The diagnoses of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) give some useful descriptions however it should be borne in mind that there are other post traumatic effects as well.
I practice trauma therapy in Somerset to help people recover from the effects of traumatic stress including Complex PTSD. I offer one to one sessions, supervision and bespoke workshops both in person in and online.
Our abilities to cope can get overwhelmed
PTSD symptoms are encompassed by the following four areas:
The way the nervous system remains in a heightened state looking for the next threat to defend itself against. This manifests in anxiety and hypervigilance, with difficulties relaxing or sleeping.
The sudden flashback memories that don’t feel historical but rather like being back in the original situation often with visual and other sensory impressions adding to the intensity.
The ability to feel, react and express oneself emotionally loses its depth and quality becoming flatter and less responsive.
The attempt to avoid anything that is a reminder of the trauma. It can be about avoiding people and places but equally it can be the attempt to avoid internal experiences such as memories, feelings and sensations that connect with the trauma.
Complex PTSD adds the following areas:
This includes difficulties with social connection and relationships. It can manifest as feeling distanced or cut off, struggling with connection.
Includes having feelings which are easily hurt and anger/rage outbursts in relationships.
The ongoing experience of being unable to manage one’s own emotions. Being easily emotionally triggered and overwhelmed. Attempts to cope may include self harming or self destructive actions or impulses.
Involves feelings of worthlessness, shame and guilt. It can include lacking a sense of self or experiencing a changed personality, feeling ‘less than’ human, feeling bad or contaminated.
Other post-traumatic effects may include: