Updated: Jul 16
More and more, trauma is referenced in the news and articles about mental health or biographies. So what is it? And why do trauma survivors and professionals get SO upset when someone says “get over it”? Short answer: it’s complicated. For a longer answer, keep reading.
What is trauma?
Trauma, at its core, is an experience or circumstance (or series of circumstances), which overwhelms someone’s ability to maintain a sense of safety and normalcy. While trauma is frequently equated with combat veterans, domestic violence and sexual violence survivors, or those who directly witnessed/survived events like 9/11, there are also a slew of other possibilities.
Here is a brief list of other things which are traumas:
Threat of homelessness
Severe illness (cancer, COVID-19, etc)
Chronic illness (diabetes, multiple sclerosis, severe asthma, etc)
Long term or repeated hospital stays
Caretaking a loved one with severe or chronic illness
Fearing loss of job/income
Sudden death of a loved one
Miscarriages and other fertility struggles
Witnessing or directly experiencing violence (or threats of violence) based on race, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, etc.
School violence (shootings, etc)
Vicarious trauma (trauma experienced by professionals who work with traumatized patients on a regular basis)
But isn’t that basically universal?
Yeah. Yeah, it does mean that just about all of us have been through trauma at some point, probably even multiple traumas. What differentiates our responses to the trauma is a huge part of why talking about, and healing from, trauma is so complicated and so misunderstood.
In the name of clarifying some of that misunderstanding, the rest of this post will give a general explanation of terms closely related to trauma. [please note, this is not meant to be a complete explanation of any of these concepts, but a primer]
Let’s start by setting the record straight. “Trigger” has become a synonym for “this made me uncomfortable” but that misses the point of what a trigger does when it comes to trauma responses. A trigger for someone who is trying to recover from trauma is a stimuli (from any of the senses, but most often a sound, smell, or physical touch) which initiates (or triggers) an involuntary response in the brain, such as a flashback, the impulse to hide, or a panic attack, because it alludes to the trauma. Our brains (in short) react this way to protect us from experiencing the same danger again. And that part of our brain is so focused that it doesn’t know what rationality means, let alone use rationality as a guide.
Someone may require substantial work in therapy to identify what their triggers are because the response to them was so sudden and awful before that they couldn’t make the connection independently. Other triggers are easier to connect. This is different for everyone. So if someone tells you that something you have said, or a situation you find yourselves in is triggering, please, take them at their word. They are self-advocating and that is a big deal. The best way you can be a friend in that moment is to ask “What do you need to do to take care of yourself right now?” and trust them. This is also, by the way, a concept in addiction and eating disorder recovery.
Imagine you’re watching a movie or a tv show and the main character sees someone or something that reminds them SO STRONGLY of something that happened before that the picture may tunnel vision to black or to a scene that is clearly earlier in the timeline and you are “in” the scene of the memory? Same idea. But--in post-trauma life that flashback may (probably) also involves physically feeling, smelling, hearing, and maybe even tasting* the same things that were sensed during the trauma. Again, the part of the brain that holds traumatic memories isn’t rational, so “snapping out of it” is WAY harder than it sounds.
Not a flood of water, but a flood of emotions or other sensory input. Many of us have experienced “a flood of relief” when we get better news than we were expecting. So take that level of relief and imagine if you experienced that intense level of anger, or fear, or full on panic, or all of the above. That is what it can be like for someone who is reacting to a trigger. This is also the phenomenon where “out of proportion” reactions can come from. And, yes, those reactions can be scary and confusing for everyone present. This is one of the many reasons why seeking treatment for trauma is so important, rather than trying to “go it alone”. In order to understand how triggers initiate flooding, which instantly leads to feeling overwhelmed, which may lead to acting in a way that you’re (or your loved one isn’t) not proud of-- a trigger has to be identified and specific coping skills need to be put in place, as well as processing the traumatic memories so they have less power over your life and actions.
Think of walking through a new haunted house at Halloween, or a dark area at night alone. That constant awareness that something or someone may jump out at you, or something may happen that could hurt you? Imagine that being your state of mind constantly. That same, not at all rational, part of the brain I keep talking about convinces the trauma survivor that they need to be on their guard to avoid re-experiencing the danger. Y’all, this is an exhausting state to live in. Ridiculously exhausting. And because you’re focusing on everything, you can’t actually focus on anything. **For the teachers and parents reading this: a child or teen who struggles to pay attention in school may not have ADHD, they may be exhibiting a trauma response and ADHD medications will not have the same effect on them, so please advocate for a trauma screening if this is a concern you are working through.
Not a teen’s worst nightmare, but the practice of bringing someone who is experiencing a trauma reaction back into the “here and now” by use of various techniques. (Keep an eye on the WC&NT / Conquer & Bloom Katy Counseling blog-- I’ll do an entire post on these techniques soon!) A gentle way of supporting someone reacting to their trauma is to offer a reminder to use grounding skills.
Like I mentioned at the top of this post, this is a brief look at what trauma is and how it can show up. In addition to writing more about grounding techniques, I’ll also do posts on topics like: Intergenerational trauma and what makes it unique, how trauma can change someone’s worldview, and the unique strengths of trauma survivors.
If some of what you read just now sounds familiar in your life, or in the life of someone you love, please reach out! I use various approaches to create an individualized treatment plan for treating trauma to bring someone from struggle to being aware and proud of their strength! Recovery is possible and there is beauty on the other side!