Trauma is not only recognized as an event or series of events in a person’s life, but as a life-altering experience.
People with trauma histories can struggle to feel safe and to trust, as they were not safe at the time of their trauma and sometimes have been badly betrayed. There are diﬀerent kinds of experiences of ‘trauma’, some of which are mentioned below.
- PTSD (diagnosis required)
A key part of this diagnosis is having had exposure to traumatic event(s) that represent a threat to life or limb, specifically defined as “actual or threatened death, serious injury or accident, or sexual violence".
- Complex trauma
A term used by therapists where abuse and adversity, particularly in childhood, have pervasive impacts on self-esteem, sense of self-worth, mental and physical health and the capacity to form and maintain healthy relationships.
- Traumatic stress
Coping mechanisms can be overwhelmed in response to the perception or experience of extreme threat. Normal life stress activates innate `fight’, `flight’ and/or `freeze’ responses which dissipate once the stress subsides. The repeated perception of extreme threat with trauma often leaves these responses chronically activated. Learn more about the difference between PTSD and traumatic stress.
Below you will find three common blocks (barriers and misconceptions) that can prevent the process of moving through trauma.
Hyper arousal, hypo arousal and dysregulation
People with trauma histories often move between different states of arousal - they can oscillate between being hyper-aroused (e.g. agitated, “jittery”) or hypo-aroused (e.g. frozen or numb) at any one time. Many also struggle to manage their often strong emotions. This can sometimes be called ‘dysregulation’.
Detrimental coping strategies
Some coping strategies (e.g. self-harm and avoidance) can be adaptive by providing relief in the moment but work against the person’s own interests in the longer-term. This ‘makes sense’ in the context of prior traumatic experience: with trauma, there is often a need to protect against potentially overwhelming experience (for example, by denying, self-medicating or other short-term coping behaviour).
As a consequence of a trauma history we may develop responses in order to initially ‘survive’ the trauma. These adaptive responses are ‘stored’ in neural networks and trauma can later be activated by events (i.e. associations or reminders of the original trauma). Default responses (e.g. hyper-vigilance) can be triggered even though they are not needed or helpful anymore.
Below are three things you can do to boost success.
Learn about the neuroscience of trauma
Understanding a little about the neuroscience of trauma enables people to better interpret some of the responses they experience. These physiological reactions are triggered unconsciously and largely by sensory stimuli and reminders of the original trauma. People who have experiences of trauma can feel trapped in a cycle of physical and psychological reactivity and they (and others) often do not understand why this is happening.
Managing emotions is hard when you don't know what you're feeling except that you feel out of control and can't be sure what will happen next. This lack of emotional awareness sometimes leads to unhealthy ways of feeling better. Learning to identify your emotions such as the sensations, feelings, thoughts, and behaviour that follows, can help to figure out how to make yourself feel better. Start with identifying what you're feeling. See a counsellor who specialises in anxiety and/or trauma work, or use sites like the very well mind.
Emotional regulation techniques
Movement, meditation and mindfulness-based relaxation techniques are common tools for recovering from trauma. Focusing on something in the physical environment or on body awareness (e.g. 7 senses focus), helps to regulate and soothe the nervous system. Grounding techniques can also assist you to stay in the present moment during episodes of intense anxiety or other overwhelming emotions. By focusing on the physical world and how you experience it you can feel safe and in control. Explore some of the resources in the 'Need more info' section below.
Need more info?
Techniques and fact sheets
Generational and Refugee Trauma
- STTARS - Survivors of Torture, Trauma and Rehabilitation Service
- Refugee Health Service - South Australia
- Nunkuwarrin Yunti - Aboriginal Health Services
Link in to the breath
Explore these sites on calming strategies
- Smiling mind
- Talk Campus - meditations (article) & (Sound Cloud tracks)
- beyondblue - anxiety management
Online treatment modules