Because of the complexity of the human nervous system, trauma can impact people in many different ways and on many different levels. It can inflict mild anxiety or it can be truly incapacitating. Added to that, misunderstandings about the nature of trauma can create needless suffering by keeping victims from seeking treatment. So let’s talk about trauma and some basic ways to treat it.
What Is Trauma?
The word trauma comes from the Greek word for wound. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury.” This is a good way to think about it: Trauma is a psychic wound that leaves people in a disordered state. People with trauma may have painful triggered symptoms such as flashbacks and panic. The trauma may also disrupt normal psychological development, causing difficulties in social skills, communication, or attachments. In more severe cases, people may experience effects such as dissociative identity disorder.
Trauma typically occurs where there is abuse, neglect, or exposure to violence, but even exposure to strong emotional stress can cause a level of trauma. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a commonly used term, but it is technically a clinical label used to describe a set of specific symptoms and reactions.
A Memory Issue
To understand how trauma impacts people, it’s important to recognize that trauma is primarily a memory issue, and more precisely, an issue of how memories are stored. Normal memories are acquired during the day and integrated into a person’s memory network during sleep, but traumatic event memories are stored differently. They are saved in such a way that they become triggerable alarms. When something reminds the individual of the traumatic event, the memory and the painful feelings associated with it are played back.
This different type of memory process occurs when a person experiences a painful stimulus such as intense fear, loss, or shock along with the sense of powerlessness to control it.
How Trauma Response Evolved
Researchers suggest that this neuro-physiological response evolved thousands of years ago as a way of keeping people safe in predator-rich environments. People who could better remember frightening encounters with dangerous animals, for example, were better able to avoid them in the future and thus improved their chances of survival.
Over time, the brain evolved a way of storing these trauma memories so that, when triggered, the person would be reminded of the frightening event by means of flashbacks, nightmares, and other disturbing symptoms. The brain also stored the memories so that they would persist at intense levels. Although this was a wonderful system for keeping people safe in prehistoric times, in our current social environment, these trauma symptoms cause tremendous suffering. People also tend to develop secondary symptoms such as depression, anxiety, anger, and difficulty in social situations.
Misconceptions Around Trauma
There is a lurking but pervasive idea in the social consciousness that trauma is not based on a neurophysiological reality but occurs primarily because people are psychologically weak. The message that trauma is “all in your head” simply does not correspond to the reality of what is happening in the nervous system. Unfortunately, this misunderstanding compounds the problem of getting proper treatment. It has the effect of fostering shame and denial in a trauma sufferer, often cutting them off from much needed emotional support from their environment.
Resolution Is Possible
Although this may sound like a lot of bad news, the effects of trauma can be resolved in therapy. There are a number of specific approaches, including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reorganization (EMDR) and Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing technique, which help change “alarm memories” to non-triggerable, normal memories. With these therapies, long-standing painful memories resolve and symptoms simply disappear.
Treatment of trauma is a delicate business, however. Because of all the other issues that develop around the trauma—shame, depression, anger, sense of isolation—developing a safe, “no-pressure” environment and using a trauma-informed treatment plan are essential.
Part II: Different approaches and solutions to resolving trauma
David Seagull, LISW, is a therapist in Fairfield and a member of the International Society for Trauma & Dissociation, DavidSeagullTherapy.com.