What is Trauma?


Traumatic events are part of our life cycle.  We can’t change our past experience but trauma therapy can help transform the imprint left on our hearts, minds and nervous systems.  These events can be anything from losing a job, a person or pet, a child leaving home, a betrayal, divorce, surgery to bullying, car accidents, assaults, abuse, natural disasters, first responder and combat stress.   We are all affected differently but there are some common experiences like a  loss of trust and confidence and a disconnect from ourselves all the way up to the disabling symptoms of post traumatic stress.   Trauma therapy is more concerned with transforming the effects of these experiences and how they are stored in our nervous systems in the present than it is with the past event.

A traumatic experience can shake our foundations of trust and safety and can really be described as any experience that overwhelms our capacity to cope at the time that it is happening to us. This feeling of overwhelm comes from surges of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol which trigger the stress response to perceived threats and danger. We are more likely to experience something as traumatic if it causes intense fear and we feel powerless to control what is happening to us. When this happens our brains process this experience differently than ordinary experiences and the memory can become “frozen in time” in our nervous system. For more information about this see the section on EMDR and PTSD.

As mammals our brains and central nervous system, (CNS) are hard wired by evolution to respond to any perceived threat, (this can be physical or emotional, real or imagined) one of 3 ways – by fleeing, fighting or freezing. We can also dissociate which means that we can distance or numb ourselves from the experience so we don’t feel the physical or psychological pain in order to cope or survive. An example of this would be a child being pursued by bullies who tries initially to fight back but realizes he’s out numbered and runs away,(flees), then hides, (freezes) is caught and dissociates, (numbs out) while he is being assaulted so he doesn’t feel the physical and emotional pain.

Another example would be a child who is witnessing her mother being assaulted by her father. Even though the violence is not happening to her she is experiencing fear and powerlessness so her survival instincts will be mobilized in the same way as if it were happening to her. Research shows that witnessing someone else’s trauma can be equally if not more traumatizing for the witness.

We can be traumatized by a single event like a car accident depending on the degree of fear and powerlessness we experience. We can also accumulate less obvious traumas over time which can wear down the capacity of our nervous system and the memory centers in the brain so that we become more vulnerable to any triggering experience, (our internal alarm switch becomes stuck in a permanent “on” position). This can look like burn out, stress, anxiety, depression, relationship problems and all manner of physical ailments resulting from a suppressed immune system. Children are particularly vulnerable because they already feel quite powerless which is why when traumatic things happen to us in childhood they can stay with us for the rest of our lives until they are resolved in some way, sometimes in therapy.

Sometimes we can heal from traumatic experiences on our own and as time passes. We know that what helps is being in a supportive environment, restoring a sense of control, being able to make sense of what happened, relaxation and mindfulness techniques, being listened to and understood. But often we need extra support to move past the trauma back to health and this is where trauma counselling can help.