Written By: Dr. Michael Mandrusiak, Registered Psychologist
How do you know if you’ve experienced psychological trauma? What exactly is it? The word “trauma” has been tossed around somewhat casually by the general population as an expression of feeling scared or startled (e.g., “OMG, you totally traumatized me”), or having a negative experience (e.g., “that was so traumatizing”).
With the word “trauma” used in so many different and informal ways, the intense depth of pain and suffering imbedded within the real definition of trauma becomes lost. So what exactly is trauma?
Trauma is the experience of actual or perceived threat of death, serious injury or violence that leaves you with a lasting sense of danger long after the threat has passed. The traumatic experience deprives you of the natural sense of safety that you had previously taken for granted and leaves you vigilant against potential future threat.
Symptoms of trauma can include:
- Avoidance of situations or stimuli associated with the traumatic event
- Intrusive and unwanted thoughts, images or memories
- Persistent negative emotions and beliefs
- Memory loss or sense of detachment
- Hypervigilance and/or heightened emotional/physical reactivity
- Nightmares and/or flashbacks
A person experiencing some of these symptoms may or may not meet the full criteria for a diagnosis of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Fight, Flight, or Freeze Responses
This heightened vigilance for danger can be adaptive for surviving in a dangerous environment, enabling you to detect dangers so that you can fight or flee.
If you cannot fight or flee, freezing is another survival response for coping with a situation where you feel helpless or trapped. While adaptive in the face of danger, these responses become forces of disconnection when the danger has passed – disconnection from yourself, from the present moment and from valued relationships.
3 Stages of Recovery
In her classic book “Trauma and Recovery”, Judith Herman (1992) outlines the three basic stages of recovery from trauma and from symptoms of post-traumatic stress: establishing safety, revisiting and reconnecting.
1. Establishing Safety
Establishing safety is an essential part of recovering from psychological trauma. After a traumatizing event, your emotional, physiological and cognitive reactions remain cued to threat even after the threat has passed.
This lack of felt safety can make it hard to respond adaptively in moments where there is no danger present. Of course, a sense of safety cannot be re-established if the danger remains present.
Safety can be re-established by drawing on a range of psychological resources that help you to feel and believe that you are safe and to regulate your physiology to allow your body to assume a calm, relaxed and restful state.
Images and memories of times when you felt safe, people that you feel safe around and teachings or beliefs that are a reminder of safety or personal strength can all be part of a “personal safety kit”.
Grounding exercises, guided meditations, relaxation exercises, deep breathing and belief-congruent prayer can all be used to help re-establish a sense of safety in your body.
A sense of safety has emotional, cognitive and physiological dimensions that must each be addressed.
2. Remembrance and Mourning
One reason that the post-trauma symptoms linger is that you have not fully processed the experience. This incomplete processing makes sense – a traumatic event is often so upsetting that it is overwhelming to think about, triggering emotional dysregulation, distress or numbness, the latter being a sort of emotional circuit breaker that quickly shuts off emotion that is overwhelming.
And yet, without the ability to revisit and mourn the painful experience in a safe manner, it is difficult to understand and make meaning from it and to integrate the experience. That is why establishing safety and developing emotional regulation strategies is such an important first step.
By staying connected with a sense of safety and modulating the intensity of negative emotions, you can revisit painful experiences without being overwhelmed. This revisiting allows for processing and making meaning of the experience in a healthy way.
Earlier, I described trauma as a disconnecting force. It can disconnect you from your sense of identity (your relationship with yourself and who you are), your emotions, your relationships and your community.
Multi-generational and collective traumas can disconnect entire communities from their collective identities. Judith Herman describes the final stage of recovery from trauma as involving reconnection to valued aspects of self and community from which you have been disconnected because of trauma.
People dealing with trauma often struggle to feel a sense of belonging because of this disconnecting force. By re-establishing a sense of safety and integrating past experiences into your own identity and story, you are freed to become more grounded in yourself, your relationships and your communities. You can once again feel safety and closeness with others.
If you are dealing with symptoms of trauma from past experiences, you are not alone. Consider reaching out to a mental health professional at Brentwood Counselling Centre for support.
Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. Basic Books.