Basia Skudryzk is a team member of our ministry, and a member of our White Collar Support Group that meets online on Zoom on Monday evenings, 7:00 pm ET, 6:00 pm CT, 5:00 pm MT, 4:00 pm PT.
While the term trauma was originally largely confined to medicine and psychotherapy, it’s found its way into everyday language, where it is often used, semantically overstretched, for any form of painful or frustrating experience. Yes, even for the infamous word…Covid-19.
We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.
Traumatic events encompass anything from a sexual assault or physical/mental abuse to a cancer diagnosis. “By abuse, we often mean things that are a lot milder than things people typically think of as abuse. It might include being hit with a hard object, like a whip, a belt, or a paddle,” says Roberts. “The behavior doesn’t necessarily need to be illegal to induce a traumatic response.”
People who experience traumatic events sometimes develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD. PTSD can develop after a person experiences violence or the threat of violence, including sexual violence. It may affect people who have a close relative who experienced those things as well. These traumatic events are generally incidents that are considered outside the ordinary and are exceptional in their intensity.
Avoidance of painful intrusions as a measure of self-protection is only one of the reasons that makes it difficult to share a traumatic experience with others. There are many other reasons such as: speaking about what happened can be subject to interdiction, social taboo, or shame; a common ground of experience or knowledge is missing; one does not want to burden others with one’s own pain; the violation and the suffering have not yet been socially acknowledged.
“[A]nyone speaking or writing about concentration camps is still regarded as suspect; and if the speaker has resolutely returned to the world of the living, he himself is often assailed by doubts with regard to his own truthfulness, as though he had mistaken a nightmare for reality.” (Arendt 1951/1979: 439)
Our risk for mental and physical health problems from a past trauma goes up with the number of events we’ve experienced. For example, your risk for problems is much higher if you’ve had three or more negative experiences, called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs.. Adverse events include physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, witnessing domestic violence, substance misuse within the household, mental illness within the household, parental separation or divorce and incarceration of a household member.
While severely traumatic events are believed to have the greatest effect on long-term health, other stressful events that don’t necessarily meet the psychological definition of trauma can still cause problems. This might include a sudden death in the family, a stressful divorce, or caring for someone with a chronic or debilitating illness. These milder events might lead to a mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression. Trauma pushes your ability to cope, so if you have a predisposition toward anxiety, for example, it may push you over the edge.
People who are suffering from traumatic memories may try to escape them by participating in risky behaviors such as drinking, smoking, drug use, compromising behavior for acceptance or even overeating for comfort. Coping mechanisms are used as a way of dealing with emotional disregulation that occurs when someone has been traumatized. These habits, in turn, lead to health problems. Experts believe that there is actually a direct biological effect that occurs when your body undergoes extreme stress. When you experience something anxiety-provoking, your stress response activates. Your body produces more adrenaline, your heart races, and your body primes itself to react. Someone who has experienced trauma may have stronger surges of adrenaline and experience them more often than someone who has not had the same history.
People who have experienced trauma may also struggle with getting help. One of the most common outcomes of trauma is avoidance. It makes sense. If you experience something traumatic, you want to avoid thinking about it and going to places that remind you of it. Some people may be in denial about the role past trauma is playing in their life. One of the hallmarks of trauma is the fact that people often use defense mechanisms to protect themselves from stress. Denial is one of those, as is trying to normalize past problems.
To get more information about trauma and PTSD or to find treatment resources, the following professional resources may be of use:
The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (www.istss.org)
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (www.adaa.org)
The National Center for PTSD (www.ptsd.va.gov)