What causes trauma?
Trauma can occur from any distressing experience – often an unexpected, dramatic and isolating event – in which we feel powerless and have no control or strategy to cope with what is happening.
Trauma doesn’t lie in the distressing experience itself but in the body’s response to the experience.
The survival response
When there is a threat or a perceived threat we orient, rapidly assessing the situation, then activate a hierarchical system of defence.
Fight or flight
If we are able to fight the situation or escape it we experience an act of triumph and feel good about ourselves. This allows us to process the event after it has happened. We go into the recovery phase where emotional energy is discharged. We cry. We shake. We lick our wounds.
Then we go into the integration phase where the memory is processed and consolidated and we make meaning of our experience. During the period of integration we might not sleep well and find ourselves bursting into tears until the response settles and is integrated into the whole. The integration of the experience re-regulates the nervous system so that we re-enter the window of tolerance feeling restful, safe and okay in the world.
However, it is often the case we can’t fight or escape the situation, and instead we freeze and become immobilised. In freeze the front brain (neocortex) and body shuts down. The organism ‘plays dead’ to give us the best chance of survival. The freeze response is an entirely appropriate and normal reaction to an overwhelming experience and the brain doing its job to protect us in the moment. However the result of this reaction, and the front brain shutting down, is that the event isn’t processed properly. It remains ‘live’ in the body and mind. This then leads to an array of stressful, traumatic symptoms.
So therefore trauma lies in the consequences of the freeze response to the distressing event.
Symptoms of trauma
- Insomnia and restlessness
- Depression, anger, anxiety
- Self hatred, shame
- Hypervigilant, jumpy
- Easily triggered into fight/flight or freeze
- Mood disorders
- Intrusive thoughts
- Night mares and flashbacks
- PTSD (inc complex PTSD)
- Dissociative disorders (Inc DID)
- Personality disorders
- Insecure attachment
- Physical illness
Trauma is particularly damaging when experienced in childhood, and especially during the first six years of life. Usually when a child has experienced an unstable, abusive and neglectful environment where the boundaries of the emerging self are violated, and the attachment to the parent is damaged. Trauma in childhood is also known as complex trauma and disrupts a child’s development, sense of self and the ability to form securely attached relationships.
Unprocessed trauma and its resulting symptoms is inevitably re-triggered by similar situations or people. It’s important to note that as an adult we can perceive an event quite differently to our childhood self. To the adult it might seem insignificant now but to the child it was frightening and threatening.
Trauma ultimately cuts us off from the roots of our deepest self so we feel disconnected and orphaned from our centre. Healing trauma involves the processing and integration of all the unresolved feelings and sensory information so we are no longer triggered. It is also about recovering the dissociated parts of ourselves that still hold the wounds, and transforming the insecure patterns of attachment to that of the earned secure. When we are healed, we feel reconnected to the body and spirit and to a greater sense of safety in the world.
As trauma lives in the body, traditional talking therapy often isn’t enough to access the deep wounds left behind. It could in fact have the opposite effect of re-traumatisation. This is why I am trained in specific somatic therapies that are gentle, safe and effective for the processing of trauma: