By Cailin Crosby
When deeply distressing and disturbing events occur that are out of our control we can experience a wide range of responses. When these responses overwhelm our ability to cope, we call this trauma.
Trauma may result from a one-time event, such as an assault, accident, natural disaster, divorce or death. Trauma may also result from repeated, ongoing experiences such as domestic violence, child abuse, neglect, active combat, living in poverty, or the continual experiences of oppression and prejudice. A traumatic event may be anything that leaves you feeling profoundly overwhelmed, distressed or helpless.
The critical piece to highlight is that trauma is defined by the subjective experience of the individual; not the objective details of the event.
No 'right' or 'wrong' way
When we appreciate the varied and subjective nature of trauma, we can understand how there is no right or wrong way to respond to a traumatic event. It is never helpful to compare ourselves to others. Comparing your response to someone else’s may only serve to compound the challenges you are going through or risk you feeling as though your experience is invalid. There are many factors involved in the way one might respond to a traumatic event – one of which is your previous history with trauma.
Experiencing trauma earlier in life can change the way that we respond to future traumas or stressful life events; particularly if this happens during childhood or adolescence when our brains and bodies are still developing. Experiencing trauma may disrupt our ability to regulate our emotions, self-soothe, create and maintain positive interpersonal relationships, or see the world as a safe place. As a result, we may develop ways of coping in order to numb or dissociate from our emotional pain such as avoidance, self-harm, social isolation, disordered eating, or substance use.
As psychiatrist and author Bessel van der Kolk notes, “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions”.
When we are faced with overwhelming, terrifying situations that are out of our control, we do what we can in that moment to survive; and that is worth honouring.
With that said, the survival strategies that helped us cope in the past may now be impacting our ability to live the life we want in the present.
Rather than questioning your responses or dismissing them as “wrong”, “out of proportion”, or “bad”, I would encourage you to approach them with openness and curiosity. Be curious about how your behaviour may have protected and served you in the past. Once you can see this adaptive behaviour for what it is, you can begin to recognize what resources and strengths you have available to you now–at this point in your life–that you did not have when the initial trauma occurred.
Common responses to trauma
With all the different ways that one may respond to a traumatic incident, it is important to remember that any and all of these responses are a normal reaction to an abnormal event.
- Aches and pains (headaches, stomachaches, backaches)
- Disrupted sleep or insomnia
- Muscle tension
- Changes in eating habits, loss of appetite
- Nausea, diarrhea, constipation
- Heart palpitations, trembling or sweating
- Being easily startled
- Difficulty breathing
- Social withdrawal
- Increased use of substances
- Being easily irritated
Emotional and psychological
- Shock, denial and disbelief
- Fear and anxiety for one’s safety or the safety of others
- Sadness and anger
- Guilt, self-blame or shame related to feelings of helplessness
- Frequent thoughts or images of the event
- Dreams or nightmares about the experience
- Flashbacks – feeling as though you are reliving the experience
- Feelings of detachment
- Loss of motivation, poor concentration or attention
- Loss of interest in hobbies or other activities
If you are struggling with your response to a traumatic event, try not to isolate. Reach out to your social support network and, if it’s accessible, consider working with a trauma-informed therapist. Processing trauma does not necessitate retelling or re-experiencing the trauma. A trauma-informed approach recognizes the pervasiveness of trauma in its various forms and prioritizes your safety by allowing for control, choice, and collaboration within the therapeutic process.
Learning about trauma and common responses to traumatic events may help to validate and normalize your experience. And should you choose to, it may help you to advocate for the support you need from those closest to you.
Want to talk more about navigating trauma?
Common Questions about the Effects of Trauma - Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH)
Trauma Recovery - Manitoba Trauma Information & Education Centre
Trauma Response Guides - Child Mind Institute