What images does your mind conjure up when you hear the word ‘trauma’?
Words can become ‘fashionable’ and in so doing, the real depth of meaning is often lost.
Until a few years ago, the word ‘trauma‘ was for me a bit like the word ‘stress’. In my world, stress was bandied about with such frequency and was attributed to so many of our less desirable behaviours that I failed to realise how ‘real’ stress was and the detrimental impact too much stress has on our physicality as human beings.
It wasn’t until I began writing for a health publication in the UK, many moons ago, that my education really began around what actually happens within the body when it’s flooded with stress chemicals. I was surprised to learn ‘stress’ is not just a fashionable word – nor something in your head, nor is it just something to say when someone is red in the face with anger or exasperation. It affects your mental and physical health and, yes, it can be a killer left unchecked. This brings me back to ‘trauma’.
If on hearing the word ‘trauma’ your mind brought forth images of limbs being lost through war, or horrific incidents or death-defying accidents you’re not alone. The sad reality is, while yes trauma does indeed happen in these scenarios, trauma can often begin at home.
Domestic violence, sexual abuse, mental and emotional cruelty, neglect or indifference, serious illness, the loss of a loved one and suicide are all forms of trauma within the home. The ‘trauma’ can be a one-off event, or it can happen over and over, again and again. Trauma can take the form of an extreme event or betrayal or lots of smaller more insidious occurrences.
Research now shows how damaging trauma can be. In fact, trauma fundamentally changes the brain’s structure and alters its functionalities. Up until I committed to my own trauma counselling – I had no idea how much my trauma had shaped me as a person – even though I thought (clever me) I’d spent most of my life making sure the things that had happened to me – did not define me. Oh boy, was that illusion about to come crashing down.
Recognising that you have lived through trauma can take many years, let alone how long it may take you to be brave enough to actually turn up to a trauma counsellor’s appointment. You see our survival brain is extremely adept at holding us back because it’s committed to keeping us safe … ‘no need to talk about that thing’ … ‘there are others who had it far worse’ … ‘it was so long ago’ … ‘what difference can it make now?’ and so on. However, that appointment is just what’s required if you are to take the necessary first steps toward healing.
My own recognition of trauma took a meandering route. As a practitioner and a friend, I wanted to help someone who was having some challenges, so in between writing workshops and healing sessions I was doing a bit of extra reading. I happened to come across an article about stress and anxiety being a by-product of trauma.
The article drew me in and suddenly a wave of emotion swept over me with an undeniable realisation that I myself displayed and felt a whole range of classic symptoms of PTSD. You know when you’re reading something and you think ‘hang on a minute…?’ I read further, delving deeper down the rabbit hole until I realised, all those years people had labelled me ‘Feisty’ – a trait I’d readily owned for myself along with attributing seemingly random outbursts with extreme PMT, were actually the hallmarks of Trauma. I may have appeared feisty on the surface but on the inside, my adrenalin had just kicked up a gear and I was preparing to flee or fight. I was scared and defensive. I just didn’t recognise it.
I didn’t go to war – not in the conventional sense – but my home-life growing up was my very own personal warzone where I was constantly under attack of enemy fire. I literally feared for my life some days and lived in a permanent state of high alert. I had no-one to tell about this apart from my best friend. I was trapped day-in-and day out in a volatile situation. I could see how this childhood experience made me ‘vulnerable’ (a word I shall explain in another article) and my early experiences propelled me into further abuses and ‘traumatic’ experiences. As I got older I observed my own reactions seemed to veer chaotically between the manifestations of fight, flight, freeze and ‘befriend’.
If you can identify with any of these experiences yourself – then chances are you are still in survival mode even now. It can take a long time to acknowledge you are a survivor of trauma – particularly if you have never truly understood what the word encompassed. However, once you have come face to face with that realisation, gradually, you begin to realise life isn’t meant to be lived this way- and the best bit is – if you are willing to do the work – you can change your life! Though I’m not going to lie … healing from trauma really is like peeling layers of an onion and it doesn’t happen overnight. But little by little each layer can be safely removed and it will reveal the beautiful, resilient YOU.