By Caroline Sweatt-Eldredge, MA, LPC
In our last post, we began our first entry of a several part series about understanding trauma by addressing a foundational question: What is trauma? In this second entry in our series, we will focus on trauma’s effect on our lives.
How does trauma impact us?
As a review, by now we know that when we say trauma, what we are really talking about is being exposed to or experiencing some sort of stressful event that creates an intense emotional response, such as fear, helplessness, or horror. Because of the intensity of this stressful event, our lives have been changed as a result.
But how does trauma change our lives?
It’s important to keep in mind that although everyone’s experience of trauma is different, trauma tends to impact us across several different areas. These include:
- Our ability to regulate our emotions;
- Our bodies, development, and physical selves;
- Our attachments and relationships with others;
- Our relationship to ourselves and sense of identity;
- Our ability to cope with and manage stress;
- Our sense of spirituality and connectedness.
After the trauma has occurred, we may experience differences or difficulties in each of these areas of life. For instance, we may notice that our emotions feel out of control or numb. We may also feel pain or confusing sensations in any parts of our body that were impacted by the trauma, or we may feel as though our bodies are fragile or shameful. We may experience difficulty trusting others, or we may throw ourselves into relationships as a means of meeting the needs created by the trauma. We may question who we are in light of what has happened, or wonder what it means about the world that such a horrible event could occur. Healing from trauma includes addressing each area of our life that has been impacted by the event.
Also, sometimes when we experience trauma, we develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress, including:
- Intrusive re-experiencing of the event (e.g., flashbacks or nightmares);
- Numbing out or avoidance behaviors;
- Negative changes in thoughts, mood, or beliefs;
- Hypervigilance (a persistent state of alert) or increased anxiety.
These symptoms may impact our sense of identity, relationships, or core beliefs, and can negatively influence our lives if not treated.
Because of trauma’s impact, sometimes we compensate with behaviors that can create more difficulties than they solve. For instance, someone who has experienced relational trauma may avoid relationships altogether. Although this is designed to protect the person who has experienced the trauma, this strategy has the unintended effect of perpetuating a sense of isolation and unlovability.
It’s important to remember that these responses to trauma, although not as helpful as we would like them to be, are often coping mechanisms, survival techniques, or evidence or resilience. Part of moving forward from the trauma is developing coping skills that are more effective (and less damaging) in the long run. As we heal, we need to feel safe and protected enough to set aside these negative strategies in favor of more adaptive, if seemingly riskier, coping skills.
By understanding trauma’s impact, we can truly begin to move forward toward the life we want. When we see how trauma has shaped us, we can effectively address our needs with empathy and compassion as we process what has happened to us.