Terror. Unbearable and intolerable pain. Your body releases a surge of adrenaline, causing your senses to be hyper sensitive, while other non-immediate bodily functions slow or stop. Your heart races, your muscles tense. Depending on what happens next, you will either fight, flee, or freeze. Whatever your system chooses in that moment, every cell of your body is aware that life could end in this moment. Sometimes a moment that is repeated on a regular basis.
Or… A slow, steady drip, day in and day out, of disregard for you as a person. Words fired like arrows into your psyche in a never-ending barrage of soul crushing rejection. Desperate need – for affection, for basic physical needs like proper food and clothing, for approval and validation. Complete dependence, and no means of escape. Believing this is all you deserve or can ever expect. You cannot fight, and you cannot physically flee. You develop other means of survival, from “going someplace else” in your mind to constant appeasement.
Maybe even years spent alternating between both states.
Do You Have Trauma?
Did any of the above descriptions make you react? Did they spark unwanted memories, or make you emotional? If so, I am truly sorry if I have triggered your pain.
But if you reacted, or if you have reacted to other stimuli – descriptions of events, an all-too-familiar scenario, a certain smell, or even something you can’t even consciously put your finger on – then the answer is yes. You have trauma.
Regardless of the specific situation or events, trauma causes physical, chemical and emotional changes to our entire system. In fact, the paragraphs above lack the details of a concrete experience on purpose. Because trauma isn’t the event(s) that happen – trauma is defined as the response to those events. One person’s trauma may be just a really bad experience for another, and vice versa.
The difference lies within our nervous system, and that system functions outside of our conscious control. The same part of our brain that keeps us breathing and digesting evaluates sensory input every second. It senses danger and initiates our physical response before ever sending the message to the areas of the brain responsible for conscious thought. We evolved this way, when living among predators and other enemies. Things that were bigger, faster, stronger. When a moment’s hesitation could be fatal.
Because every nervous system is unique, there’s no way to predict whether events or circumstances will be traumatic for people, or even how traumatic they will be. Obviously, there is a line – some things are bad and scary enough to cause trauma in pretty much anyone. But even then everyone who experiences such things will be affected in different ways and at different intensities.
Is It Really Trauma?
This means an incredible amount of people, when confronted with the fact that they are suffering from trauma, have a hard time accepting that fact. “It wasn’t THAT bad,” they often say. “Others have experienced worse.”
Of course, no matter what you’ve been through, there’s always going to be someone out there who has actually experienced worse. But that is irrelevant to YOUR trauma. If an event or situation caused your brain and body to respond as if you’ve had trauma, then you have trauma. What has happened to anyone else doesn’t change how YOUR nervous system functions.
The bottom line is that trauma is whatever your body and brain decide it is. If, for whatever reason, your automatic systems felt that you were in danger, that there was a good chance the harm you suffered was severe enough to trigger the physiological changes designed for survival, then you have suffered trauma. And no matter how anyone else would or has reacted in similar situations, your response was the right one for you.
In other words, no matter what caused it, your trauma is valid because your body and mind say so.
What Are The Symptoms of Trauma?
Again, since everyone’s nervous system is unique, we all react to trauma in different ways. Two people who go through the exact same events together can have completely different symptoms. And there are a whole lot of possible symptoms, both physical and emotional.
Your unique trauma package can contain one or more of these symptoms in any possible combination:
- Shock, denial and disbelief
- Reliving the feelings or events that led to trauma
- Guilt, shame and self-blame
- Muscle tension
- Anxiety and fear
- Confusion, difficulty concentrating
- Racing heartbeat
- “Knots” in the stomach
- Insomnia or nightmares
- Aches and pains
- Edginess and agitation
- Poor memory, especially concerning the events that led to trauma
- Mood swings
- Being startled easily
- Withdrawing from others
- Feeling sad or hopeless, Depression
- Feeling disconnected or numb
And these are just some of the more common symptoms. They vary in intensity from time to time and person to person. For some people trauma symptoms may be temporary. But if they continue, or even worsen over time, trauma can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. At this point, medical, psychiatric and therapeutic help are strongly encouraged.