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  • Mark Sutton

Understanding Trauma


Trauma can be described as any experience which overwhelms the normal coping mechanisms that we have and a traumatic reaction is the result of the natural emergency defences of the body kicking in for survival.

The reactions are hardwired and therefore not under our conscious control. They are also determined by the makeup of the individual so that, while not being a source of weakness, one individual may be traumatised, while another may not be or to a lesser extent. Trauma affects individuals, groups or even populations and increasingly we are realising that we are having traumatic experiences which we are not recovering from and this lack of healing results in a series of symptoms collectively referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is worth remembering though that it is normal to experience at least some symptoms after any traumatic event, but if they persist then they may be indicating PTSD.

Common re-occurring Symptoms include: fearful thoughts, flashbacks and bad dreams, difficulty remembering the traumatic event and avoiding reminders of the experience, hyperarousal (feeling tense, startling easily and difficulty sleeping), and lack of concentration. Emotionally people suffering from PTSD present with depression, worry, intense guilt, emotional numbness and a lack of interest in previously enjoyable activities. Finally, physically there are a wide range of neurological, respiratory, musculoskeletal and cardiovascular symptoms.

There are other forms of trauma to be considered: Vicarious Traumatisation and Compassion fatigue. The first is a psychosomatic experience arising as a result of repeated exposure to other peoples stories that have a cumulative effect in the individual (or group: with media continually playing and replaying an event for example). Compassion Fatigue occurs in response to the suppression of your own emotions in response to an event. Berceli cites the example of the Columbine High School shooting where families attended multiple funerals, numerous hospital visits and provided consolation to grieving families. After several weeks physical and emotional exhaustion occurred. This type of fatigue though can be alleviated by expressing the emotions surrounding the event and giving the body some time to recover.

Biochemically, there are significant changes of the levels of the hormones Adrenaline, Cortisol and Serotonin in individuals exposed to prolonged or repeated trauma. It is natural for us to produce extra Adrenaline and Cortisol in response to a traumatic or stressful event, but as the threat is removed we can calm down and the levels return to normal. In those exposed to continued or repeated stress or trauma, high levels of the stress hormones are produced and the body adapts to them and continues to produce them at high levels even when they are not needed. There is a corresponding decrease in the level of the hormone Serotonin. The practical outcome of this is that aggressive reactions, which we would not normally act on, are acted on. Opioids are another set of chemicals that are produced during trauma, these have the effect of altering perceptions, numbing us out and dissociating us from our body in its attempt to allow us to survive at all costs. In fact, a common feature of traumatised people is that both the Adreneline AND Opioid systems can work in rapid succession.

The brain itself processes traumatic experiences differently, primarily because of the overwhelming nature of the traumatic experience, the majority of the data is taken and stored in the somato-sensory area to be processed later. Until this data is processed, it remains unhealed to surface later and result in flashbacks, nightmares, bad memories. The developing brains of Children make them particularly vulnerable when exposed to traumatic experiences. It has been estimated that nearly 50% may develop psycho-emotional problems when entering adolescence and adulthood. The thought process we use as adults to manage trauma are temporary and are subsequently released, however in the developing brain of a child, this process becomes a permanent one. Repeated exposure to traumatic experiences then forces the child into traumatic thinking patterns and these become embedded into their natural way of thinking in such a way that all events which are unfamiliar or overwhelming are processed as if they are traumatising.

Trauma is multifaceted and complex, it can cause us to distrust everyone in a particular socio-economic/gender/racial group because there is no selective differentiation until we have processed the Trauma. It has been demonstrated that those who have never experienced the trauma directly, but just imagine what it was like are often more bitter, angry, less forgiving and more emotionally disturbed than those who did experience it directly and survived it. Dr. David Berceli (Trauma Releasing Exercises) believes that the numbing out experienced which is not processed and which continues with usage of drugs for example, leads to a decrease in physical sensation and this is directly linked to suicidal ideation. The mind, he believes, needs an appropriate amount of stimulation from the body, if it does not get this it creates its own, and the imagination becomes a reality. If the imagination is filled with terrors, then a cycle of numbing out and further dissociation occurs. When bodywork becomes involved as part of the healing process, then the more people become connected to their bodies and the more that they experience aliveness. It is perhaps one of the reasons why experiential bodywork and breathwork are so beneficial, as well as counselling, psychotherapy and other talking therapies. Not only do they release the tensions and trapped energy, but they bring those suffering from trauma out of the ego (which is resisting healing) and into their bodies and the genetic coding “To Live”.

Trauma is not decreasing, it is increasing throughout the world today and it is important to acknowledge the widespread nature of PTSD and not be in denial. It can happen to anyone regardless of how good or bad they are, it disturbs us because it interferes with our positive views of the world. Berceli believes that trauma victims are generally isolated by us because we are both afraid to hear what they are saying and because they shine the light that our positive views on the world are falsehoods. It’s also important to raise awareness and be organised at all levels of society, show interest in and not to reject or blame the individual.

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