The word “trauma” used to be associated with the effects from extreme experiences such as war and natural disasters. However it has become almost a buzz word in more recent times and many of us may have heard the offhand comment that “We all have trauma”. But is this true? What does that mean? And if it is true what can we do about it?
Soldiers who suffered from the effects of the Vietnam war were the first to be diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in the 1970ies, however the symptoms of traumatic experiences where already recognised in the times of World War 1, then known as Shell Shock. Since those times not only soldiers have been diagnosed with PTSD. It has been recognised that people can display PTSD symptoms after a wide variety of experiences, such as after medical procedures, surgeries and car accidents.
PTSD symptoms commonly include general chronic anxiety, hyper-vigilance and trouble sleeping, as well as flashbacks, nightmares and overall mood swings. More physical symptoms are also common, including chronic pain and tension, digestive disorders and episodes of uncontrollable shaking. However symptoms vary and sometimes do not manifest until years after a traumatic event.
Those who study and treat trauma and its symptoms now differentiate between different kinds of trauma, such as developmental trauma (events that happened in early childhood and over a long period of time), shock trauma (something sudden and extreme like a car crash or attack) and complex trauma (where multiple challenging experiences accumulate over time, such as a mixture of developmental trauma and a few isolated traumatic events in adult life.)
While trauma is easily diagnosed if we have experienced child abuse, living in a war zone or even if we had a surgery that went wrong, it may not be so obvious that we are affected by trauma if we have not had any obvious traumatic experiences.
Dr. Peter Levine, an expert in trauma healing, argues that in fact many things we encounter in life can cause trauma in us, which then alters our overall resilience, behaviours and our experience of life. Any challenging experience can have this effect on us if it happens too much, too fast or too soon for us. This is why one person may be seriously emotionally affected by falling off a horse and another simple gets back on. How vulnerable we are to trauma depends on our nervous system’s resilience and how resilient we are depends on our previous life experience and how we have learned to deal with difficulty.
Of course if we are living our life to the fullest and do not feel held back by anything inside of us there is little need to worry about trauma. However many of us struggle with minor to severe problems of a wide variety, that may not instantly be connected to trauma.
Sometimes we are diagnosed with anxiety or depression, however neither of these are actually conditions in themselves. They are symptoms of a nervous system that is overwhelmed and in a state of alarm. Many different interventions can be helpful in managing or curing anxiety and depression, however when working with a trauma therapist it often transpires that the cause of these symptoms lies in traumatic early childhood experiences or a pattern or event that happened in adult life, which caused incongruence in our physiology. In essence our brain knows that we are safe while our body continues to look out for the threat it once encountered, or in the case of depression the nervous system has given up the constant look out for danger and opts for numbness instead to shut down the fear and stress.
Some of us struggle with very complex and unusual problems like chronic pain that no doctor can find the cause of and that simply does not respond to conventional treatment. And sometimes we develop a whole bag of symptoms that cause us to suffer. Anxiety may come with sleeping problems, digestive issues, chronic pain and the feeling that we are far away from ourselves (dissociation). This is a very debilitating and very typical cocktail of symptoms associated with complex trauma.
It is also believed that trauma can be partially responsible for some conditions that the medical world is still struggling to fully understand, such as IBS, EDS, Fibromyalgia, ME and even Multiple Sclerosis and trauma informed interventions have shown very promising effects for these conditions.
It may still feel strange to think of ourselves as trauma sufferers, when we are dealing with very physical symptoms and can not recall a particularly bad childhood or any extreme experiences.
What we need to understand is what trauma really is on a physiological level. Trauma is not some elusive emotional state that can not be measured. Trauma is physiological and visibly effects the autonomic branch of our nervous system.
This part of our nervous system constantly assesses our safety and requirements for survival and thriving. It constantly regulates many functions in our body from hormone production to muscle tension and blood pressure. When it detects signs of safety it allows our body to shift into a more restful and restorative state where we can digest, learn, rest, heal and make use of our creativity. When things seem more difficult and it decides that we are under pressure or a threat of some sort it shifts us into a state of defence, which draws all our resources together to maximise our short term capacity for fight and flight. Things like rest and digest have to wait until the threat is resolved.
When too much of a threat appears, when it happens too soon, lets say when we are very young or when we are vulnerable for other reasons, or too fast, so we do not see it coming and therefore can not process it, our nervous system can essentially get confused or overwhelmed. Its constant risk assessment becomes heavily biased towards finding signals of threat. The more it finds reasons to mobilise our physiological fight and flight response the less we get the chance to resource ourselves to maintain resilient in our life.
This is why if we have had a challenging childhood we may be more prone to developing the symptoms or conditions mentioned above. In short we may become less resilient adults.
So trauma is still a word we associate with big life changing events, which means that we may not consider that it can possibly be the cause of our chronic shoulder tension and anxiety, for example.
If we changed the word trauma to nervous system disregulation however, we may find that it may make a lot more sense.
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, but you honestly do not feel that you have ever had a traumatic experience, simply consider all the normal challenges and pressures you have experienced up to date and whether they may have had an impact on the balance of your nervous system regulation.
If you feel that any of the above symptoms are holding you back in your life and you feel that your nervous system disregulation may play a role in this, a body oriented form of trauma therapy might be helpful to you.
Dr. Peter Levine’s approach, called Somatic Experiencing, is a gentle yet powerful modality that is practised by Psychologists, Counsellors, Movement Coaches and Massage Therapists. Depending on your symptoms and history a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner with a background in either talking therapy or body work could give you a very specialised approach to building resilience and resolving trauma on the nervous system level.