Many people suffer unnecessarily from the effects of trauma and abuse. Often, people suffer because they don’t realize they have experienced trauma, or they underestimate it’s impact on their lives.
But the effects on those who have experienced trauma are very real, even when they don’t recognize it has occurred. In order to heal, trauma must first be understood and recognized. Then it must be processed with the help of someone with appropriate training and skills.
Trauma may be defined as life experiences that leave lasting negative impacts on a person’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and relationships. These experiences may include accidental events like a flood or fire, the loss of a loved one, betrayal in a significant relationship, and many different forms of abuse.
Traumatic experiences affect each person in unique ways and it is not helpful to compare different peoples’ responses to the trauma they go through. Rather, we should try to understand the circumstances of a person’s trauma and their individual response to what happened.
As therapists, we begin by assessing the nature and extent of an individual’s trauma. We consider three factors: what, when, and how often.
The “What” of Trauma
We want to understand what happened. Trauma can take many forms, most of which are described below.
- Dangerous or threatening circumstances, such as accidents or natural disasters
- Distressing relationship events, such as the discovery of a partner’s infidelity, or the injury, illness or death of a loved one
- Sexual abuse, which means being used for the sexual stimulation of another person against your will or in opposition to your initial desires
- Physical abuse, which means having pain or other physical harm inflicted on you by another person
- Psychological abuse, which means being mentally or emotionally mistreated through verbal aggression, threats, intimidation, manipulation, shaming, blaming, betrayal, or exposure to the abuse of others
- Neglect, which means having your primary caregivers fail to provide for your physical, mental, and emotional needs
- Abandonment, which is when a significant caregiver, usually a parent, becomes absent from your life while you still depend on them for temporal or emotional needs. This includes lengthy and continuous physical departures, such as a parent moving away. It can also include parents who live in the home but are gone or otherwise unavailable to their children for most of the day.
Many people might consider some of the forms of trauma listed above as being “worse” or “more severe” than others. But the impact of trauma can’t be determined by how dramatic or outrageous it seems to be. Rather, the effect is determined by what the survivor of the trauma comes to believe, consciously and unconsciously, about himself, the world, and other people as a result of the trauma. More will be said about these beliefs later on.
The “When” of Trauma
We want to know when in the person’s life the trauma occurred. People can experience trauma at any age and the traumatic events will have a different impact depending on the age of the person receiving it. For example, a devastating earthquake may have very little lasting impact on an infant survivor who is too young to understand what is happening. But it could have a severe psychological impact on an adult survivor who understands the destruction and loss. On the other hand, the extended absence of a mother would have little effect on an adult but could create life-long distress if it happened to an infant who relies on the mother for nurture and security.
The symptoms that result from trauma can be very different depending on the age at which the trauma occurs. For example, the rape of an adult tends to create symptoms like severe anxiety, fear, flashbacks, and despair. The sexual abuse of a child, on the other hand, is more likely to result in symptoms like chronic depression, shame, worthlessness, and addictive behavior. We’ll talk more about symptoms further down.
The “How Often” of Trauma
We want to know how many times the person has experienced traumatic events. Some people experience just a single, recent traumatic event such as a car accident, the breakup of a significant relationship, or an assault. Other people have experienced recurring trauma, which means they’ve been subjected to repeated incidents of trauma over the course of their life.
Chronic trauma refers to situations where a survivor has lived for an extended period of time in a situation, such as an abusive family, where they were constantly exposed to trauma or the threat of trauma. Complex trauma occurs when a survivor has been subjected to multiple types of trauma—usually both chronic and recurring—over the course of their life. This tends to be the most challenging type of trauma to recover from.
Trauma’s Effects on Our Beliefs, Emotions, and Bodies
The effect trauma has on a survivor has to do with what the trauma causes the survivor to believe about himself, the world, and other people.
For example, a survivor might develop the mindset that “people can’t be trusted” or that “terrible things can happen.” Or she may come to believe that if she loves someone, she will lose him. Or a survivor might acquire a deep and completely unconscious belief that the world is an unsafe place. He may even believe that he doesn’t actually exist, though he may not realize he believes that.
As you may have noticed, the beliefs survivors develop from trauma can be either conscious or unconscious. Both types of beliefs can cause severe life disruptions, but the unconscious beliefs tend to be the most disruptive and challenging to overcome.
When beliefs are unconscious, survivors don’t even know the beliefs exist and so they have no way of understanding how those beliefs are creating the struggles they face. They may recognize their reactions to their unconscious beliefs but they usually won’t be able to change those reactions because they don’t know what’s fueling them.
People experience three types of responses to their trauma-based beliefs: emotional, physical, and behavioral. Emotional responses are the feelings that come up when a situation triggers the underlying belief. Physical responses are the ways in which the body responds to those triggers. And behavioral responses are the actions people do when they are triggered.
The form of trauma, the age at which it occurred, and how frequently it happened all contribute to the beliefs the survivor develops and how he or she responds to those beliefs emotionally, physically, and behaviorally. Consider a few examples.
An adult who experiences a severe accident or assault may develop the belief that unexpected and horrible things can happen at any moment without warning. He may respond emotionally to those beliefs with lasting feelings of anxiety and fear. He may respond physically with a heightened startle response and pounding heart when something reminds him of the trauma. And he may respond behaviorally by ducking, running, or preparing to counter-attack.
A child who experiences recurring sexual abuse may come to believe that she is worthless trash and is only valued when she gives men what they want. She may respond emotionally to those beliefs with feelings of depression and shame and desires to die. She may respond physically by becoming sexually aroused—or perhaps by going numb—in the presence of a man who’s favor she needs. And she may respond behaviorally by either seducing or avoiding men.
An infant who is physically abused by his mother may develop a completely unconscious belief that the world is an unsafe place, that he is helpless and always in danger, and that no one can be trusted to care for or love him. As he grows up, he may respond emotionally with chronic feelings of rage, which cover a deep sense of hopelessness and grief. He may respond physically with chronic muscle tension, grinding his teeth, or developing heart disease. And he may respond behaviorally by arguing, fighting, and avoiding close relationships.
Key Symptoms Of Trauma
Recognizing when a person is suffering the effects of trauma is an essential first step in their recovery. Below are descriptions of some of the most common symptoms.
- Anxiety, manifested as fears of specific situations, people, or places or general and pervasive feelings of unease, tension, and distress
- Depression, manifested as chronic sadness, hopelessness, loss of interest in previously enjoyed behaviors, or thoughts of death or suicide
- Shame, manifested as feelings of worthlessness, seeing yourself as inherently bad or flawed, frequent or chronic feelings of guilt
- Dissociation, manifested as loss of focus or awareness of present circumstances (zoning out), feeling outside your own body, splits within your sense of self or experiencing multiple voices within, or inability to account for time or behavior
- Flashbacks of traumatic experiences or unusually strong reactions to specific situations or events
How We Can Help
The foundation of our therapeutic approach to healing trauma is the establishment of a safe environment in the therapy room and a strong and compassionate bond between therapist and client. This safety and connection gives survivors the courage they need to face the wounds of their past.
In the context of that safe and trusting relationship, we use an advanced therapeutic technique called “Brainspotting,” which accesses the unconscious mind and nervous system. Neurologically, trauma is recorded in multiple structures within the brain, including conscious parts where memories and beliefs are stored and unconscious parts where emotions and bodily senses are held.
Each trauma we experience creates a network of links among these different parts of the brain. In order to heal trauma, all of these links must be accessed together and processed in a way that removes the traumatic memories from even the most unconscious places in our minds and bodies.
The most common forms of therapy, which are talk therapy and behavior modification techniques, tend to have little or no lasting therapeutic effect on trauma because they access only the most conscious part of the brain. In contrast, Brainspotting accesses and clears very deep levels of traumatic memory, bringing lasting relief.
While Brainspotting is an extremely powerful and effective form of psychotherapy, it is also extremely gentle. It marshals deep levels of internal resources, which greatly strengthen the survivor to face therapeutic challenges. And it allows the person to proceed at a pace that is just right for his or her needs. [More on Brainspotting]