Updated: Feb 3, 2022
Can we talk about trauma and trauma responses?
Trauma. There’s that word again. The agony and stress of parts of our lives that we don’t wish to remember or be associated with. Most of us don’t want trauma and our names put in the same sentence.
We distance ourselves from trauma and its close cousin PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) assuming that it is something that other people go through.
But when you truly start to understand what trauma truly is and how it impacts our lives, you start to peel off the layers you have packed on to try to diminish it.
What is trauma?
emotional response following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may be associated with physical shock.
Trauma can be likened to being constantly at war. War between the part of ourselves that wish to bring attention to the anguish we have faced in the past and the part of ourselves that want to forget. To feel “normal” and okay. To act like nothing happened to violate us, our minds, hearts and bodies.
In simpler terms, trauma f*cks up your brain. Because the brain is the supercomputer that guides the functionality of the whole body, trauma f*cks up our bodies too.
“Wounds that happened early in life that continue to affect us today.” Dr. Thema
Despite popular opinions, we don’t just “get over” traumatic events. It isn’t that straightforward. It isn’t that easy. These things shape our lives, our relationships, our choices, the way we think about others and about ourselves.
Contrary to popular belief, trauma happens on a spectrum. It’s not only from the ‘big’ traumatic events. Yes, as we already know, childhood trauma is rooted in traumatic events like physical and sexual abuse, poverty or witnessing a severe accident.
However, trauma can also be rooted in things like emotional neglect from our primary caregivers, medical history, religion and experiencing sexism, racism or tribalism.
Even though trauma in adulthood is dire, childhood trauma (stress defined by an event that occurred before a person turned 18) is especially harmful because children are especially sensitive to repeated stress activation because their bodies and brains are in the process of developing.
Childhood trauma does not wait until we are grown adults who possibly can deal with the stresses of life to show up in our daily lives.
This is where ACEs come in. ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) are a score of how many traumatic experiences a person has undergone during their childhood. The ACE test includes questions like:
Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt? No___ If Yes, enter 1 __
Did you often or very often feel that … No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other? No___ If Yes, enter 1 __
Were your parents ever separated or divorced? No___ If Yes, enter 1 __
Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs? No___ If Yes, enter 1 __
Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you? No___ If Yes, enter 1 __
There are a total of 10 questions. The higher your ACE score, the more the childhood trauma you experienced.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Studies have shown an undeniable link between this score and chronic diseases, social and emotional problems people develop as adults.
Our bodies and trauma
Dr. Nadine Burke illustrated it this way: If you’re walking through a forest and chance upon a bear, your body jumps into action in a split second to produce adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are what gear the body for the fight or flight response to either fight the bear or run away. Living with trauma is like walking through the forest, only there’s no bear. You’re afraid the bear is going to harm you even when it’s no where in sight. And even when you get home, the feeling that the bear is lurking remains. Your body is therefore always switched on and triggered. It is always hyper-alert of impending danger even when there is none.
This means that the brain/body’s stress response system that governs fight or flight response is activated over and over again: goes from life-saving to health-damaging.
Victims of trauma are likely to show subtle symptoms within their bodies: in the way they sit or breathe, how they hold their shoulders, in their sleep patterns, in their digestive process, how they treat their acne and scars, attitude towards exercise, how they use their arms or in the constant clenching of the jaw.
Trauma affects the body’s systems making one prone to poor health conditions including: heart attack or chronic heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, migraines, body aches and even cancer.
High dose of adversity or trauma affects:
brain structure and function
the way our DNA is read and transcribed (causing intergenerational trauma from the unhealed wounds of our ancestors)
And this is just the physical. Trauma is an invisible wound that weakens the body’s defenses until it shows up as an illness.
It stays with you - or does it?
“Trauma leaves an imprint in our souls.” Dr. Thema
The many effects of trauma can be seen from an early age into adulthood.
feeling shame (of your body, mind and emotions)
numbness (also referred to as dissociation which describes how memories are split into fragments impeding the brain’s natural recovery process, the brain does this to try to protect you from sad and horrifying memories)
suicidal thoughts and self-harm or thoughts of self-harm
people pleasing & trauma bonding (unhealthy or toxic relationship patterns)
substance use and addictions (this includes emotional eating, being a workaholic, drug abuse, alcoholism all to numb out feelings that you don’t want to deal with)
Trauma overpowers and devastates you to the point of questioning who you are and even failing to hold onto your truest self.
Healing trauma means reclaiming ourselves, our whole selves. It means reclaiming what we needed in relationships: care, safety, comfort and affirmation.
It might seem like an easy enough thing to do because who doesn’t know how to breathe? But this simple act can help you recognise that you are present, that you are not experiencing an attack, that you’re safe. It can also help you recognise the feelings you are dealing with in order to tackle them better. Breathing exercises can be accompanied by journaling to help unpack any feelings and memories you might have in those moments.
Acknowledge that something terrible did happen to you. Acknowledge your feelings and fears. Journaling is a great way to do this. Reading back to your journal entries is a great way to see where you’re at in your feelings. You can also turn to a trusted friend or therapist.
Ask yourself this: Is it safe enough for me to bring down my guards?
Sometimes it is hard to heal from trauma because the person who is the root cause of it is still in our lives in the form of family, friends or even an intimate partner. It might be hard but necessary to create some distance in order to gain the space you need to heal.
Use your words to affirm your worth and value. Say it loud. Let your body and mind hear you confirm the great things that you are. You will begin to believe your words and want more for yourself including better relationships, healing and growth.
We’re not talking about bubble baths, champagne and chocolate covered strawberries here.
We’re talking about the fundamentals: simply loving yourself. Provide yourself with the nourishment and nurturing. Parent yourself.
Give to yourself that which you did not receive when you needed it the most for the sake of your highest good.
Heal the shame
Victims of trauma carry shame. That shame becomes who you are. It is vital to peel off the layers of shame that trauma has built around you in order to embrace your whole self: body, mind and emotions.
Healing shame removes room for further violation. It also helps you uphold your worth and value to ensure they do not get compromised. If your trauma is rooted in your childhood, create compassion for your younger self.
Recognise that you were a child when these things happened to you; you were the victim; don’t judge yourself for being a child or for not knowing how to stop the perpetrator from hurting you.
One of the responses to trauma is building up walls; what many refer to as having trust issues. Building up walls is how a person who has undergone trauma protects themselves when they feel unsafe. This is because the mind and body have trained themselves to react in this manner.
Healing starts inside. Trauma causes us to lose trust for ourselves, our ideas, opinions, choices, our bodies. It is vital that you learn to trust yourself.
As much as healing is an internal process, it cannot happen in isolation. Healing trauma that causes us to feel unsafe has to extend beyond the internal into a community or relationships.
How else will you know you are making progress, finding healing if you can’t build trust for other people? Start small: trust yourself first, knowing that you make the right decision of letting the right people into your life. Take another small step: trusting others by being vulnerable with a close friend about something they didn’t know like your middle name. Nothing too deep.
Recognise that you are still here.
You are alive.
You are living and breathing.
That is worth celebrating. Despite the horrific experiences you went through in the past, you are still living and breathing and working towards a healthier space in which you thrive and manifest for a better you. Allow yourself to feel joy.
“After every childhood wound that you survived, I invite your soul to tell your heart, mind, body and spirit, welcome home!” Dr. Thema