What is Psychological Trauma?
Psychological Trauma is a response to an emotional, psychological and/or a physical wound which has threatened the stability and safety of the whole body. Trauma shakes the physiology of the whole system and it is an innate response to threat.
Human being shares the same brain responses of animal prays in the wild when they are attacked by a predator. In fact, in all mammalian brains there is an instinctive reflex of fight, flight and freeze when confronted with danger.
Fight is an instinctive attempt to resist the attacker and when this is not possible the flight response gets activated by running away from the threat.
The freeze response is usually experienced in form of body numbness or paralysis and it takes place when fight or flight are not available.
Fight-flight -freeze is an automatic instinctive reaction of all mammalian brains in the attempt to survive the danger of their experience.
In all mammalian brains the instinctive part of the brain called amygdala is responsible for assessing the states of both internal and external environment using sensory information. It is the amygdala that assigns an emotional interpretation to sensory information, instructing the body how to react and to transfer information to other brain structures. During Trauma the amygdala tends to perceive the world in a state of constant alert, where the body becomes physiologically ready to flight, fight or freeze, because it has not received information that the trauma is an experience that belongs in the past. Consequently, the body is in a constant state of alert while the levels of cortisol increase. Too much level of cortisol experienced for prolonged periods of time can decrease the overall health of the body and mind. Following a traumatic event, the amygdala tends to be overload with sensory information, therefore perceives the world around as potentially dangerous. This means that the brain is unable to make a distinction between a threat that has occurred in the past or in the present.
How do I know if I am suffering the aftermaths of Trauma?
The characteristic of trauma is that the brain operates in survival mode in everyday life having a great impact on the individual quality of daily functioning at different levels.
Physical: Trauma impairs our ability to relax, disconnects us from our body sensations lowering the ability to look after our basic needs such as eating and sleeping. The stress hormone cortisol is constantly activated by the fight-flight-freeze response with potentially chronic consequences for our physical health.
Emotional: Trauma takes away from us the sense of control we have on ourselves and our life, disconnecting us from our emotions which are vital for our survival. Being detached from our own emotions can decrease our capacity to cope with difficult situations.
Mental: Trauma can decrease our concentration and our focus. This can give rise to unhelpful thoughts and keeps us stuck to the same behavioural patterns that we not longer want to have in our life.
Spiritual: Trauma has detrimental effects on our self-esteem and on the sense of inner connections and connection with others and the world. Strong feeling of isolation, not belonging, detachment towards ourselves and others can affect our relationships.
A person who experiences a traumatic incident directly, or witness it happening to someone else, could develop psychological trauma. Some examples of traumatic events can be flood, earthquake, hurricane, accidents of all sorts that cause injury, long term illness, being bullied, assault, rape, torture, war, emotional/physical and sexual abuse, childhood adversity, witnessing sudden death of someone very close, dealing with suicide of a family member or friend.
What is Dissociation?
Dissociation means being disconnected from the here and now. From time to time, everyone dissociates in forms of daydreaming, mind wandering or being on autopilot. Some research studies have demonstrated that everybody experience dissociation to a degree, ranging from mild to severe on a continuum. An example of mild dissociation occurs when there is narrowing of attention to focus only on what is essential, as the mind “dissociates” unimportant information, like when reading a book or driving a car in the highway. These responses take place when there is a sense of safety in the environment and are not responses to a threat.
Chronic and problematic dissociation develops when there is a repeat threat or trauma, especially when it starts at a young age, and when there is inadequate support or soothing from an attachment figure like a parent or a caregiver.
Dissociation is a coping response of memories, thoughts and feelings related to the traumatic event. During moments of dissociation people disconnect from their surroundings, which can stop the trauma memories, lower the fear, anxiety, and shame.
Dissociation occurs when the brain stops to feel connected with the body. It is usually triggered when a person experience powerlessness in changing or stopping a traumatic event. Dissociation works on a continuum and it provides temporary support in coping with feelings of helplessness; a person in dissociative state detaches from the situation in order to go through the traumatic experience. Dissociation can take place during a traumatic situation or later when thinking about it or being reminded about the trauma. Usually a person who is dissociating does not realise it is happening.
Some signs and symptoms of dissociation are spacing out, daydreaming, staring, glazed look, mind wandering, mind going blank, a sense of the world not being real, disconnection from surroundings, watching the self from the outside, detachment from self or identity, out of body experience. Dissociation is a normal response to overwhelming trauma.
Can I ever recover from Trauma?
Recovery from trauma is a unique and delicate journey for everyone. Understanding the physiology of Trauma occurring in the body and mind during such extreme events can be a starting point towards the development of self-awareness, self-acceptance and self-compassion, essential tools for reaching recovery.
The difficulty that is often faced during this process is the inability to have a narrative for the trauma experienced. Due to the fact that in the human brain the traumatic memories are stored separately from ordinary memories, there is no or little access to them and for some people attempting to access those memories in the first place can be too overwhelming.
It is for this reason that Trauma work needs to be paced, to gently increase a person’s unique window of tolerance rather than putting pressure on the whole-body system to recall traumatic memories that are unbearable.
My ethos of working with Trauma is to improve a person’s quality of life. Due to the volatile effect of trauma, I put emphasis on stabilisation, in supporting clients to discover or re-acquire an internal sense of safety by getting in touch with what makes them resilient, because after all, you have survived!
I explore grounding techniques to support clients in finding self-supporting strategies to deal with traumatic memories, respecting their own individual pace. I passionately believe it is extremely important that clients are empowered in choosing how they want to recover from Trauma, which may mean that some clients do not have any intentions to revisit the traumatic memories. Healing is a powerful process and an ongoing journey and it has different sizes or shapes for each unique individual.