What is trauma?
What is trauma?
You may hear the word “trauma” a lot, but you might be wondering, what is trauma?
Trauma refers to an emotional or psychological response to a distressing event or experience that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. In counselling and other helping professions, “big T” trauma and “little t” trauma are terms used to differentiate between different levels of trauma experiences.
“Big T” trauma refers to the types of traumatic events that are often severe, life-threatening, or involve a significant threat to physical integrity or safety. Examples of “big T” traumas may include experiences such as natural disasters, sexual or physical assault, combat or warfare, or serious accidents or injuries. “Little t” trauma, on the other hand, refers to less severe but still distressing or overwhelming experiences that can still result in symptoms of trauma. These experiences may include things like emotional abuse, verbal abuse, neglect, divorce, or experiencing bullying.
Trauma, as described by renowned physician and author Gabor Maté, goes beyond the experience of a distressing event. He states, “Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.” This perspective highlights the importance of emotional support and validation when processing a traumatic experience. Without a supportive environment to help make sense of the event, the individual may internalize the trauma, leading to long-lasting emotional and psychological consequences.
How Does Trauma Impact the Body?
Polyvagal theory posits that the body’s response to stress and trauma is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which is made up of two branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
The SNS is responsible for the “fight or flight” response, which is activated in response to perceived danger or threat. This response involves the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which increase heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration in order to prepare the body to either fight off the threat or run away from it.
The PNS, on the other hand, is responsible for the “rest and digest” response, which helps the body to relax and recover after a stressful event. The PNS is divided into two branches: the ventral vagal complex (VVC) and the dorsal vagal complex (DVC).
The VVC is responsible for social engagement and communication and is activated when an individual feels safe and connected to others. The DVC, on the other hand, is responsible for immobilization and dissociation, and is activated when an individual feels overwhelmed and unable to cope with a stressful situation.
According to polyvagal theory, trauma can disrupt the normal functioning of the autonomic nervous system, leading to dysregulation of the SNS and PNS. This dysregulation can result in a range of symptoms, including anxiety, depression, dissociation, and physical health problems.
What are the psychological effects of Trauma?
On top of the impact to the autonomic nervous system, trauma can have a significant impact on psychological well-being, causing a wide range of emotional and cognitive symptoms that can persist long after the traumatic event has ended. One common mental health condition that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance behaviors, hypervigilance, and negative changes in mood or cognition.
In addition to PTSD, trauma can increase the risk of developing depression and anxiety, both of which can interfere with daily functioning and quality of life. Trauma can also lead to feelings of hopelessness, guilt, and shame, which can exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety. Moreover, trauma can make it difficult to regulate emotions, leading to mood swings, irritability, and anger. This can also lead to difficulty with interpersonal relationships and conflicts with loved ones. Additionally, trauma can erode an individual’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem, leading to negative self-talk and feelings of shame or guilt.
Finally, these events can also increase the risk of developing substance abuse or addiction to cope with overwhelming emotions or to numb the pain of the traumatic event. In addition, trauma can cause disruptions in sleep, such as insomnia or nightmares, which can lead to fatigue and irritability during the day.
It’s important to seek support from a mental health professional if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms following a traumatic event. With the help of therapy and other interventions, it’s possible to manage the effects of trauma and work towards healing and recovery.
So, what now?
Maté further elaborates on trauma by explaining its pervasive nature, stating, “The essence of trauma is disconnection from ourselves. Trauma is not terrible things that happen from the other side—those are traumatic. But the trauma is that very separation from the body and emotions.” This perspective emphasizes that the core of trauma lies in the disconnection from one’s own emotions and body, resulting from an inability to process and integrate the experience.
Therapeutic approaches that are informed by polyvagal theory aim to help individuals regulate their autonomic nervous system and restore balance to the VVC and DVC. It is important to address the mind-body connection in healing from trauma. Techniques such as mindfulness, yoga, and somatic experiencing are often used to help individuals connect with their bodies and regulate their nervous system, which can promote healing and recovery from trauma. Hillary McBride stresses the importance of healing from trauma through our bodies. She explains,
“Our bodies hold our stories, and healing from trauma means reconnecting with our bodies, learning to listen to their messages, and creating space for emotions to be felt and released.”
Healing from trauma requires reconnecting with one’s emotions and body, as well as the support of empathetic witnesses to help process and integrate the experience. Understanding these perspectives can inform therapeutic approaches and encourage a more compassionate response to those affected by trauma. Healing from trauma requires reconnecting with one’s emotions and body, as well as the support of empathetic witnesses to help process and integrate the experience. Learn more about how trauma specific therapies can help you heal from your trauma.