I'm currently studying the unit Trauma-informed counselling at University and have previously done training in Trauma-informed mindfulness with David Treleaven. Through these great learning opportunities I have developed a greater understanding how to navigate trauma in my own life and in coaching and counselling sessions. I help give clients affected by trauma have a sense of agency and choice over their experiences which is important aspect of growth if you're affected by trauma. The amazing helpers I sometimes work with who are on the front lines working with people affected by trauma in the community can learn ways to regulate and orient their clients trauma safely which is what inspired this weeks blog.
Firstly I would like to highlight the fact that trauma is an adaptive mechanism and understanding why can help empower you growth. My lecturer recently gave the example of a Zebra in the jungle that is being chased by a lion, the lion may take a bite out of it's hind leg but the Zebra manages to manoeuvre, get free and escape near death. During this event the Zebra experiences trauma, it's heart speeds up, it's energy is immobilised, it's digestion is shut down, its smell, vision and physical power is heightened, it's reflexes react. All of the Zebra's energy is going into survival mode. I know that it sounds scary but in this case the Zebra does indeed survive. But the trauma experienced now means that Zebra can smell the lion further away that what it did previously because of it's heightened sense of smell and will not forget that lions are dangerous to their survival.
When you understand trauma as an adaptive mechanism you can develop a positive relationship with the experience of it and find empowerment through it. I have also noticed many people who identify as "survivors" have a heightened sense of social justice which I believe is a very positive thing. In someways they are the torchbearers for social change and I am all for their empowerment. Just this week we saw some of these women send Harvey Weinstein to face the justice he rightly deserves. But if the punishment of the perpetrators of violence was the answer to reducing trauma life would be easy. It's not, justice is about the collective growth. Often perpetrators get away with terrible things and get ahead by gaining authority and power over others to repeat vicious cycles.
Survivors have their own journey to healing trauma and often it's a system that is in itself deeply flawed and filled with injustices, even the law is not always ethical. We need to weed out injustice slowly and carefully if we want to sustain our collective growth.
What can happen interpersonally after a trauma or indeed within interpersonal trauma experiences can have far reaching impacts especially if it happens during childhood development. Things like amnesia, disassociation and maladaptive stress, panic and anxiety patterns can form in responses to avoidance or denial of the trauma and complex trauma is cumulative and repetitive and is usually interpersonal like on-going familial abuse, community violence, war and genocide. People who experience complex trauma might experience a pervasive sense of shame as a core affect (not just as an acute emotional state) but as an enduring aspect of their personality structure (Frewen & Lanius, 2015).
Trauma impacts the behaviour, emotions, cognition and physiological body. Often maladaptive responses to trauma will present in physical sickness or pain and sometimes even in the location of the trauma experience. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes this in the book Full Catastrophe Living, when a woman who did the MBSR body scan meditation couldn't feel any sensations from her neck bellow. She persisted with the mindfulness practice to eventually have a flashback of being strangled by her mother which unblocked her trauma and a flood of memories of childhood sexual abuse.
Hypo and hyper-arousal can occur making it very difficult for those who are suffering from trauma to regulate or recognise the trauma. People suffering from trauma often isolate themselves, carry a lot of helplessness, guilt and shame, are over protective of self and often feel a loss of control. It can also affect the memory with those suffering unable to recall the trauma or have flashbacks suddenly and experience overwhelm and even psychosis in extreme cases.
Often trauma is not picked up because other co-morbid conditions are more easily identifiable. Trauma is experienced in stages by most of us when seriously injured or when our lives feel threatened or when we experience death of another human in particular suddenly, violently or unnaturally. Triggers can then elicit a trauma response in us in which case it becomes difficult to seperate the past from present. That's where mindfulness is such a great tool to enable grounding and coming back to the body, safety and discernment. There are also tools available to map triggers and distress and help you better understand your response to them. Interestingly trauma can also be multi-generational and perpetuated through families affected by it. It also can affect the way people approach their helping relationships which can make coaching and therapy more challenging.
First responders to crisis can make a difference by being trauma informed and if you are having any struggles with trauma or in need of support please don't hesitate to reach out to me. If I don't have the experience to help I have a list of kind and caring professionals who can. Lastly I want to leave with this video I recently watched by Trauma researcher Peter Levine who describes his own trauma experience so beautifully.
"Most therapists have an empathic presence. For many trauma survivors, therapists are the first people they encounter who they feel understand and care about them, and they gain significant relief from that." - 2020 Psychotherapy Networker Symposium featured speaker Peter Levine.
Frewen, P., & Lanius, R. Healing the traumatized self. New York: W. W. Norton & Company