Understanding Trauma Pt. 2: How Does Trauma Impact Us?

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.

Understanding Trauma Pt. 1: What is Trauma?

By Caroline Sweatt-Eldredge, MA, LPC

Over the next few weeks on the blog, we will be posting a series about understanding trauma. As a trauma-informed care community, we take seriously our commitment to understand the impact of trauma in all the work we do. We believe that understanding trauma can be the first step toward healing—whether that means helping to heal your children or yourself.

All of this leads us to today’s primary question: What is trauma, anyway?

Maybe you’ve heard about trauma from a television show or movie, and you know that many veterans experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Or, maybe you are parenting a child from a hard place and “trauma” seems to be a buzzword that is just about everywhere these days. Maybe you’ve described a really awful situation as “traumatic,” even though you weren’t entirely sure what that means.

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. The way we define the world around us (or even our own identity) has shifted.

Trauma impacts us across time, including our past, present, and future. Essentially, we can re-experience thoughts, feelings, and sensations leftover from the past event in the present moment. This can shape our decision-making or make us feel limited, thus impacting our future. For example, someone who has been in a car wreck in the past may continue to feel unsafe or anxious while driving even though they are not in danger in the present moment. Because of this, they may avoid driving and limit their mobility and options in the future, turning down opportunities that could benefit them.

Want to experience this for yourself? Think of a time when you felt frustrated or anxious. Make sure it was just a relatively minor annoyance—there’s no need to get really worked up to participate in this activity. As you think about or picture this frustration or anxiety-provoking situation, notice how you feel in your body. Do you feel any tension? Breathing changes? A sinking feeling in your stomach? Even though you are not currently in the frustrating or anxiety-provoking situation, you may be able to feel these sensations in you own body in the present moment! Trauma means repeating this experience on a grander scale with more intensity and impact. We may re-experiencing pain, emotions, and sensations leftover from the past in the present moment—just like you were doing now.

Everyone experiences trauma differently, and it is not uncommon for two people experiencing the exact same traumatic event to respond differently. This is perfectly normal. Also, our response to trauma is greatly impacted by the severity of the event (what we call “Big T” traumas, like abuse or a near-death experience, or “little t” traumas, like minor accidents or some broken relationships) and whether the event occurred once (like a natural disaster) or was more ongoing (like childhood abuse). These differences can impact what treatments may be helpful when moving toward healing–but it is important to remember that all trauma can create a lasting impression.

Understanding the impact of trauma means shifting your focus from asking “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” By making this change in our understanding, we are better able to compassionately care for our children, our communities, and ourselves.

The Ultimate Redo

By Megan Moursund, MA

For trust-based parents, the idea of the “redo” is as familiar as it is powerful.  This quick and effective strategy works with toddlers and teens alike.  A rambunctious three-year-old snatches a toy from her playmate, and the trust-based parent swoops in with, “Whoa, sweetie!  Can we try that again with respect for your friend?”  Then the redo ensues, with parent coaching the child to use words to ask for what they want.  A moody teen replies to a request to clean up his room with a scowl, and the trust-based parent might reply in a similar way: “I want to hear you, could you try that again with respect?”  And, with any luck, he rethinks his response and chooses to comply or ask for a compromise.

Calling for a redo allows connection to be maintained as power struggles are minimized.  The parent offers their child the opportunity to learn by doing before the situation escalates and the opportunity for deep learning is lost.  Parental monologues on the virtues of sharing and respect and please and thank you may be filled with valid points.  We somehow become great orators when children enter our lives!  But, the glazed eyes and unchanged behavior of the recipient prove the point often made by Dr. Karyn Purvis:  Motor memory trumps cognitive memory. 

As trust-based parents, one goal of any correction is that it be action-based.  We want to maximize learning by creating body memory for “the good stuff.”  TBRI research has shown that 70 – 80% of problem behaviors can be solved at this level of playful engagement where adults are connecting, empowering and teaching proactively.  Those are compelling numbers, but there is an even more compelling reason to use the power of the redo as parents.

Our Father God is the ultimate trust-based parent, and Easter could be considered the ultimate redo.  “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.”  John 3:16-17 MSG

This season, we can reflect on God’s grace in offering each and every blundering human being on the planet forgiveness through His Son.  It is a gift of eternal connection that we could never deserve or earn.  A gift that changes us from the inside, out, and empowers us to live a whole and lasting life.

How has the power of The Ultimate Redo changed you?  How might offering the gracious gift of a redo change your child?  We would love to hear your thoughts!

Suggested Resources:  http://child.tcu.edu/resources/

Disney’s Inside Out: Validating Your Child’s Emotions

By Caroline Sweatt-Eldredge, MA, LPC

Last night during the 88th Annual Academy Awards, Disney’s Inside Out took home the Oscar for the best animated feature of the past year. The film, about a young girl named Riley experiencing many changes as she enters adolescence, focuses on our internal, emotional worlds. Told from the perspective of the personified emotions that guide her, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear, Inside Out provides parents a valuable resource into understanding the minds of their children (and their own!). If you haven’t yet seen it with your children, this could be a great opportunity for your family to bond and have intentional conversations about emotions.

One of the primary lessons of Inside Out is that each of our emotions—even the negative ones—serves an important purpose in our lives. Too often, we shy away from our more negative emotions, including sadness, anger, or fear. We may tell ourselves that is inappropriate to feel a certain way or even try to push away how we feel. While emotions run amuck may lead to all kinds of difficulties, in and of themselves they are important “check engine lights” of our life. When we are allowed to experience them in the presence of a safe or caring person (like a parent!), our emotions tend to lead to greater self-understanding.

As a parent, how do you respond when your child displays a negative emotion? Do you dismiss it with a quick, “Cheer up, kiddo!”? Do you disapprove of it by treating sadness as weakness? Or do you provide your children a safe, validating space within which they can learn emotional regulation?

Inside Out provides a beautiful scene that can help us understand the importance of validating your child’s emotional experience instead of dismissing it or disapproving of it. When Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong discovers that he may not play a role in her life as she grows up, he becomes very sad. Seeing this, Joy leaps into action to distract him from his sadness:

Bing Bong: Riley can’t be done with me…
Joy: Hey, it’s gonna be okay! We can fix this!…
Bing Bong: I had a whole trip planned for us.
Joy: Hey, who’s ticklish, huh? Here comes the tickle monster! Hey, Bing Bong, look at this! (Makes a silly face)

Have you ever found yourself doing some of these things when your child feels sad? How did those strategies work for you? Even though Joy’s intentions are good, she wasn’t very helpful by trying to distract him or minimize what he was feeling. Bing Bong couldn’t move past his negative emotional state. Following this exchange, Sadness reached for Bing Bong with a different response:

Sadness: I’m sorry they took your rocket. They took something you loved. It’s gone forever.
Bing Bong: It’s all I had left of Riley.
Sadness: I bet you and Riley had great adventures.
Bing Bong: Oh, they were wonderful…we were best friends.
Sadness: Yeah (reaching out for a hug), that’s sad.
Bing Bong: (Cries, then:) I’m okay now. Come on, the train station is this way.

By validating his sadness and providing a listening ear, Sadness created a path for Bing Bong to move toward healing. It works this way with our children, too. Instead of trying to distract them or dismiss their negative emotions, we can help them move toward healing and maturity by validating what they feel and listening to what they have to say. By being their shoulder to cry on, you not only help teach them how to self-regulate—you can also deepen the bond you share and strengthen your family relationships.

The Power of Vulnerability

By Caroline Sweatt-Eldredge, MA, LPC

In 2010, Brené Brown’s viral TEDx talk introduced an important conversation about the power of vulnerability. A shame researcher studying human connection, she discovered that the difference between those who experience a strong sense of connection, love, and belonging and those don’t came down to one thing: Those who experience deep connection believe that they are worthy of love and belonging, and those who struggle with feeling connection often don’t.

Fascinated by this profound truth, Brown dug deeper. This sense of worthiness, of feeling that you are enough, often led to the courage to be imperfect and a wholehearted ability to show compassion for oneself and others. This courage and compassion created deep, authentic connection.

Another word for this courage and compassion? Vulnerability.

Vulnerability means embracing who you are at this very moment–warts and all.

Vulnerability is being the first person to say I love you.

Vulnerability is taking creative risks at work in order to develop needed solutions.

Vulnerability means allowing yourself to be seen–really seen.

Vulnerability means risking disconnection in order to develop true, authentic connection.

As Brown says, vulnerability is the core of shame and our struggle for worthiness–but it is also the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love.

Vulnerability is risky, though, and Brown describes several ways we deal with our fear of vulnerability: We numb our emotions to blunt vulnerability’s power. We make the uncertain certain and eliminate any mystery or unknown. We control and try to perfect everything in our reach. All of these strategies, though, lead to disconnection. When we numb our emotions, we numb joy and meaning. When we make the uncertain certain, we reduce our ability to empathize with others and eliminate curiosity and exploration. When we try to be perfect, we introduce an impossible standard that can only lead to shame.

We can, however, grow to understand and believe that even though we are imperfect and wired for struggle, we are worthy of love and belonging.

We do this by let ourselves be seen.

We do this by loving with our whole heart–even when it means risking heartache.

We do this by accepting reality and understanding our own contributions and limitations.

We do this by practicing gratitude and joy.

We do this by bravely believing that we are imperfect, but we are enough.

As I think about vulnerability, love, and connection, I am reminded of a powerful C.S. Lewis quote from his book The Four Loves that sums it up so well:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

In our relationships, our families, and ourselves: Love is worth the risk.

More Than Words: Parenting and Nonverbal Communication

By Caroline Sweatt-Eldredge, MA, LPC-Intern

Imagine with me a typical day at your office. You are sitting at your desk working on an important project when you hear your supervisor’s voice over your shoulder. “Could you come by my office?” she asks. “I have something I need to discuss with you.”

How are you feeling as you hear these words? The answer, of course, depends a lot on your supervisor’s nonverbal communication. What facial expression is she making? If she is pleasantly smiling or maintains soft eye contact, you may anticipate a positive meeting recognizing your hard work. How is her tone of voice? If she sounds irritated or is speaking more loudly than usual, you may wonder if a lecture or correction is coming your way. If the request comes right after a meeting about an important project, you may infer from her timing that she simply wants your opinion on one aspect of it. Communication is so much more than just the words we choose! Some communication researchers have concluded that less than 10% of what we communicate depends on word choice alone. That means up to 90% of what we are communicating to the people around us is nonverbal! Continue reading “More Than Words: Parenting and Nonverbal Communication”

Keeping the Holiday Train on Track

By Elizabeth Pennington, MA

Just when you think you have your kids on track and adjusted to the routine of school, your little train gets hit with the ferocious holiday storms! Often, these storms hit unexpectedly.  We assume these days are meant to be “better” than the average, but find that they are actually more challenging. When storms hit they result in more disastrous outcomes when we have no warning and don’t have the opportunity to prepare for them in advance. With the holidays coming I hope to bring to mind some of the challenges parents can expect and provide some tools for preparing for the storms and keeping the holiday train on track.

Continue reading “Keeping the Holiday Train on Track”