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Trauma is something that we will all experience at some point across the life span, and this links closely to levels of resilience as to how we then manage this experience.
This can cause numerous things to happen to a person both psychologically and physically, sometime this may not even be recognised as traumagenic in nature. However trauma may be an underlying cause of symptoms that you have been carrying without realising it. We can sometimes be attributing symptoms such as anxiety for example to just being how we are, without recognising it’s roots or cause.
Any life-altering event or trauma can cause you to feel a disconnection both to the people around you and your everyday life. You can experience numbness and lack of wanting to do things. You may experience irritability, anxiety and become more reactionary, tearful and reclusive. Conversely, you may keep yourself so busy that you are having very little down time in which to think about how you feel. Anxiety often dominates your life, leaving you feeling hopeless and helpless.
When we are in a state of anxiety due to trauma, it often heightens our senses to the point where we are triggered so much more easily. This then becomes a cycle that we find we can’t easily get out of.
Our cortisol levels rise, and we react much more acutely to sensory sounds in our environment, such as loud noises, sirens, even people raising their voice can trigger a psychobiological response.
It is also recognised that after trauma there will be attempts by the brain to re-wire in an attempt to immunise you against it, but it can actually cause more harm and even depress the immune system, making you more likely to become physically more likely to be ill. The brain naturally seeks to minimise the trauma we experience and tries to divert around it at times as a protective mechanism.
There is an expression, we grow through what we go through, which links really well with a construct from positive psychology called posttraumatic growth, which links really keenly with having high resilience.
Posttraumatic growth allows you to grow as a result of your experience, and re-wires the brain back to a state of balance and harmony, leaving you feeling whole and well again.
In order for this to happen it is important to bear witness to your trauma. Experience it in a gentle way by means of revisiting it, and move through the process of unpacking and reframing it. When we do something on purpose, and do it often, we send new signals down pathways that then become the preferred route taken by the brains processing. This is also how we form habits, because when we pay attention to something, the brain perceives it to be important and stores it as a new route.
If that something we are paying attention to is due to a stored trauma, we just begin to experience more physiological responses as the body sends out traumagenic signalling. This is not to say that someone should be revisiting their trauma often, because sometimes that can happen too, rather that they need to begin to gently find new ways of being, or feeling, that allow room for growth conditions.
Neuroplasticity is where the brain is able to rewire itself and move through or away from a way of thinking cognitively and form new healthier pathways. When trauma has occurred it is common for the brain to hold on to the physiological responses, and send triggers to the autonomic and sympathetic nervous systems.
There are many ways in which we can move through this: a trauma focussed therapist or counsellor can help, and there is a method of trauma clearing known as somatic psychology, which focuses on trauma stored in the body to release it.
Most importantly perhaps, it’s crucial to begin to bring the body and mind back to feelings of safety. When we do this, the alarm system that has been triggered by trauma gets reset, and the faulty navigation codes get wiped, allowing for new routes to be stored in the neural pathways of the brain.
Feelings of safety are imperative to emotional well-being after trauma, so knowing what your safety measures are that work really helps. Some people use weighted blankets to promote a sense of calm, which is likened to having a hug and releases the same chemicals that promote calm and well-being.
Having a support network helps too, as do hugs, and anything that brings comfort.
Most important is finding a way to bring meaning to what has happened, either to you, or someone you care about. When you can do this, you bring yourself back to safety and feeling safer. Trauma needn’t rule your life, it’s a case of bringing yourself back to feeling that you are home.
Caralyn Bains is a coaching psychologist. She is an associate fellow with the British Psychological Society.
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