banner image

How Trauma Affects Us

Last week we looked at what exactly is trauma.  To review, the definition I tend to like the best is trauma is anything that we experienced that is less than nurturing.  Trauma can apply to any situation in which we felt unprepared, violated, or out of control.  Being able to accept that what we have been through was traumatic or at the very least did have a negative impact on us is typically the first step in healing.  The next step is developing an awareness and understanding of the different ways our trauma has affected us and how that is showing up in present times. People are often surprised to discover just how many of the negative things they are currently experiencing are in fact a result of their unresolved trauma.  It can feel a bit overwhelming.  The important thing to remember here is that while that list of negative effects can feel like a lot, there are many things you can do to help yourself heal.  That is the amazing thing that research has shown over the years and has given people a great deal of hope.  Our brains actually have the ability to be rewired and be able to leave the past in the past without carrying those negative impacts into our future.  Before we look at how that healing can happen actually happen, we'll spend some time this week looking at the how trauma can affect our brains, body, and relationships. The Brain-Body Connection The inner workings of our bodies can be complex and overwhelming AND it's very helpful if we can better understand them in order to truly figure out what may be causing things to be out of whack.  My goal is to make it easy to understand here! So about the central nervous system (CNS): This system contains both our brain and spinal cord.  It it good to know this because it reminds us of how our brains and bodies not only communicate with one another, but they also impact one another.  Within this system we also have two other systems that have a direct impact on how we function.  These are called the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The parasympathetic system is what is also known as the rest and digest system.  This is what is active when we are calm, collected, and feel a sense of safety.  This translates to our body in ways such as telling our body it's safe to take in and properly digest food, lowers our heartbeat, and encourages our organs to function properly.  The sympathetic nervous system on the other hand is what gets activated when we perceive any sort of danger.  People often use the bear in the woods example to highlight this system.  If you are in the woods and see a bear, this system signals to your body that it is time to prepare for danger.  This is when we typically experience certain behaviors such as fight, flee, or freeze.  Since our bodies job is to focus solely on safety then, it needs to reserve all energy and focus for that goal.  This is why things like this happen within our bodies: increased heart rate, increased secretion of chemicals and hormones that prepare you to fight, and decreased function in things like digestion, intestines, and other organs that are not needed for survival in that moment in perceived danger.  In an ideal world, these two systems function in harmony to keep you going at an optimal rate.  When we have been exposed to trauma or chronic stress though, that's when this is no longer possible. The interesting thing that we've learned through research is that it doesn't just have to be something as scary as a bear in the woods that causes that sympathetic nervous system to come online.  It can actually be anything that we perceive as a threat, whether that be something physical or emotional.  When we have had trauma, anything that even in the slightest reminds of that trauma can cause this system to be activated.  Where this gets really tricky is when everything feels like a threat, it's almost as if our sympathetic nervous system gets stuck in a constant state of activation and our parasympathetic system stays completely offline...and this is exactly what happens when we've been through some sort of trauma and it has not been resolved. This is why trauma doesn't just impact our mental health, it impacts our physical health as well.  The longer it remains unresolved, the more damage it does to our bodies.  This can look like experiencing: -digestive issues -chronic pain -headaches -panic attacks -insomnia -hypervigilance -depression -anxiety -high blood pressure -autoimmune disorders Relationships After Trauma This is another big area that people tend to struggle with when they've experienced trauma of some sort.  This makes total sense being that when we have experienced trauma it impacts the way we see ourselves, others, and the world around us.  From the time we are born, we all have the need to be healthily attached and connected to others.  This is vital to our survival.  In an optimal childhood environment, people are able to feel like others and the world around them are generally safe.  They also are then able to have a pretty healthy sense of self-esteem as well. However, once something traumatic has happened, regardless of the timing of our life it occurred or the details of traumatic event, it completely changes all of that.  We might feel like not only can we not trust those around us but we definitely can't trust ourselves either. Our brain also will do anything at any cost to avoid feeling the pain and hurt that we did with the trauma by avoiding anything that feels remotely familiar to that experience.  This can be even tougher if the trauma has been present since childhood, ongoing throughout our lives, or involved one of our primary caregivers.  For some people, they may have never felt safe and secure in relationships with others if this is what their experience was since birth. From that perspective it makes complete sense why we might struggle with relationships after experiencing trauma.  Not only are we not functioning 100% physically as we read earlier, but now we also are having to fight against all of this old programming that has kept us safe and surviving for so long that it can feel impossible to get our brain and parts of us to trust that things could be different. Remember: your brains job is to keep you safe and so if it even senses the slightest bit of familiarity in a situation that was present during our trauma, that sympathetic nervous system gets activated and at that point DANGER and GET TO SAFETY are the only messages that our brain is focused on in that moment.  Hence why if the trauma we experienced previously involved another human, getting close to humans in present time can still feel incredibly risky and threatening to our mind and body. When it comes to some specific examples of how this might look in regards to how unprocessed trauma affects relationships, it might consist of: -Avoiding conflict at any cost -People pleasing -Withdrawing -Feeling clingy or anxious when the other person isn't around or even when they are around -Self-sabotaging in relationships -Frequent conflict -Hostile conflict -Physical violence -Fear of commitment -Bouncing from one relationship to the next -Fear of criticism Is Healing Really Possible? The short answer is...100% yes.   Even if you are experiencing all of these things or many of them now and it might feel overwhelming or hopeless, I am here to tell you there is a light at the end of the tunnel and it does not have to be this way forever.  I'm able to say this with complete confidence as I have not only been through my own journey of healing from trauma, I also see clients do it all the time in my office as they embark on their challenging but necessary journeys to trauma recovery.  Having someone walk alongside you on that journey can be vital as this work is not easy by any means but absolutely necessary if we want to get to a state of optimal peace and well-being. What exactly does that look like and how can we make that happen?  Stay tuned next week to learn more!