What is Trauma?
Trauma can be defined as any experience that is intensely disturbing or distressing and leaves a profoundly negative emotional imprint on a person.
This can include sexual abuse, physical or emotional abuse, but also encounters that, on the surface, might not be expected to leave a long-lasting negative memory. The person may not even realise they have experienced trauma at the time, and it may affect them later on, or they may be consciously aware of their trauma, and may repeatedly relive the event in their head.
If trauma is not addressed, it can create neuroses and issues around relating to others in the present and the future.
The impact of trauma
Trauma impacts on every individual in a unique way. When we hear someone say a person looks “traumatised”, they are talking about visible distress. In reality, many people who experience trauma do so internally, which means that we may not see any visible expression on their face that indicates this.
Sometimes, instead of the individual being able to articulate their pain, trauma can be displayed in other, less direct ways.
It can affect the person’s attachment style and pattern in the future. For example, in close relationships, where the person may feel overly exposed or vulnerable at the prospect of really trusting someone else, they may push loved ones away or unconsciously engineer situations to create a distance between them and other people.
This is all done in an attempt to ‘preserve the self’, and ultimately, to prevent a repetition of the original trauma they once experienced.
Helping people who have experienced trauma
Patience is essential in helping individuals who are affected by trauma. Trust itself is complex, but particularly for people who have experienced extreme trauma in their lives. This is because many of them will have established a belief system that others cannot be trusted and that if they do trust them, they will once again suffer and be left feeling vulnerable, powerless, and alone.
This is referred to as ‘hypervigilance’, where somebody is overly careful with who they choose to trust, and can become anti-social and anti-relational with others, leaving them with no one to support them.
This is not always the case. Traumatised people may, conversely, develop an over-dependence on partners, friends, or family members. This is done in an attempt to avoid the feeling of hopelessness or vulnerability that they feel when they are left alone with their thoughts and memories.
Both types of responses come from the same fear: that of the trauma occurring again in some way. The first response reasons that by keeping oneself independent, the risk of danger is reduced. The second says that by keeping others close, there is less chance of them having to manage danger in isolation, thus giving them a better chance of surviving it.
In order for the traumatised individual to be able to make peace with their trauma and to trust again, they need to work through the actual experiences, ideally with someone professionally trained (such as a psychiatrist, a counsellor, or a combination of the two, as well as other support services that can be found online), and build on these past experiences by creating new reparative positive ones.
This can be very slow, involving small steps such as talking to someone they would previously have avoided, or challenging their beliefs gradually to question who they are really mistrustful of: is it the new person they are communicating with?
Is it the old previous person who betrayed and mistreated them, causing them the trauma to begin with? Or, lastly, is it the individual themselves? Often people can blame themselves for traumatic experiences because they imagine they could have prevented it, or they unconsciously hold onto the idea that they caused it to avoid facing a feeling of helplessness.
This is why, if you are supporting someone who is going through trauma, or if you are going through it yourself, patience is so key.
There are so many different aspects to it that can surface along the way, and there is no time-frame on how long it should take to recover from traumatic experiences.
If you are helping someone close to you who has been through something traumatic …
It is hugely important to find the balance between being there for the traumatised person and letting them know you are there for them, and not falling into the role of becoming their therapist.
This is for their benefit as well as yours. They will need to work through a lot of defences and insecurities that have been generated by the traumatic event, and if you are too closely involved, it can affect the relationship you have with them quite harmfully.
That is not to say you should not make yourself available to the person, but rather, that it may also be useful for them to seek professional support along the way.
If you have been through something traumatic …
It is important to seek appropriate help in order to work through what has happened, but that is, of course, a big step to actually take. There are some techniques that may help you in the meantime.
Something which has been found to be helpful is a traffic light technique, where you identify what feels safe (green), what feels a little bit uncomfortable (amber), and what feels dangerous (red).
This can be used on phobias, general anxiety, and social anxiety, as well as many other issues. It allows you to slow down your thought process in order to think rationally about what your limits are, and it can help people to avoid certain situations if they feel ‘red’.
A variation on this technique is rating things (stressors, things that induce anxiety etc) on a scale of 1-10 in terms of how much they bother you, or how much anxiety they create. Again, this can help you to question and consider what feels manageable, and perhaps to realise that certain things are less stressful than they initially feel.
These are simply two examples of grounding techniques that can be used within therapy but also outside of a therapeutic setting too.
Each human being is different in terms of what approach speaks to them and what works well for them.
Trauma affects people differently and must be handled sensitively, honestly, and slowly. If you think you have suffered a trauma of any kind, it would be worth opening up a conversation about it with a professional, where it is possible to work through the trauma in a safe environment.