TRAUMA 101

By Judith Klein, LCSW

What is trauma?  In its broadest definition the word trauma is used to describe deeply distressing and disturbing experiences which overwhelm a person’s ability to cope cognitively and physically, leaving that individual feeling powerless. Trauma related symptoms are adaptive coping mechanisms, as the mind and body attempts to make sense of the traumatic experience.

The earlier, more repetitive and unpredictable the trauma is, as in childhood sexual abuse, the more the trauma shapes the personality of the child and disrupts basic developmental tasks.  Survivors of these traumas often struggle with self-soothing, trusting others, and seeing the world as a safe place. Organized thinking or decision making, and avoiding exploitation often resulting in self sabotage, are some of the additional struggles.

Trauma is held both in the body and mind. Even in situations in which there is no conscious memory, as in very early abuse, the body still retains the memory. In trauma, one moment becomes frozen in time.  Remembering in the present may feel as painful as going through it in the past.  The body and mind are interconnected in a myriad of ways.  The effects of trauma include:  painful feelings, an erroneous negative belief about oneself, and various physical symptoms that may be similar to those felt during the original trauma.

Sometimes trauma is divided into “little t”, and “BIG T” trauma.  “Little t” traumas are often relational.  A child has a very critical parent who frequently finds fault with the child.  These experiences often form the irrational negative belief of “I am bad”, or “I am unlovable”.  What follows can be depression, low self esteem, shame, intimacy issues, or perhaps the use of substances to block those negative beliefs and feelings. “BIG T” traumas such as child physical or sexual abuse, rape, war, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and accidents, affect the individual dramatically and cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. The ensuing symptoms include: flashbacks, nightmares, fears, startling easily, depression, difficulty at work or home, problems with relationships, and loss of self esteem.  These large scale jolts to the mind and body are destabilizing.  Sometimes the individual can feel numb, or unable to feel pleasure.  These debilitating symptoms often lead to drug and/or alcohol use as an attempt to gain temporary relief.

All traumas get locked into a memory network exactly as it was experienced, with the same sights, sounds, smells, tastes, beliefs, and body sensations.  A veteran of war can be triggered by a car backfiring.  The sound puts the individual back in time when he or she experienced gunshot and bombs.  This in turn reminds the veteran of gruesome sights, the smell of death, the sense of terror, and feelings of helplessness, and guilt.  The individual re-experiences all of this, impacting the body and nervous system, where the trauma stays stuck and unprocessed.

One way to think of this is to imagine a log jam that is preventing the water from moving downstream.  When trauma is experienced, it causes this locked memory system to operate like a log jam.  Everything remains stationary and stuck in time even if the trauma occurred many years before. One treatment that is known to break up this log jam is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, better known as EMDR. EMDR engages the Left Lobe of the brain which holds feelings, and the Right Lobe which holds thoughts, bringing together the thoughts and feelings with body sensations, and negative self belief.  This allows the individual to reprocess the traumatic memories.  What this means,  as in the case of the returning vet, is that the original trauma can be placed back in time, and the present safety reinforced.  The irrational negative self-perceptions which include his/her culpability can be reworked as “I was caught up in the war, and not responsible for all that happened”.   EMDR allows all the recurring sights, sounds, smells and body sensations to be experienced in a different light.  Often a combination of talk therapy and EMDR are most effective.

For more information about EMDR and how it can work for you, please read my article on EMDR therapy.

Additional information on trauma:

Allen, Jon G, Coping with Trauma: A Guide to Self Understanding, Washington, DC , American Psychiatric Press, 1995

Bass, Ellen & Davis, Laura, Beginning to Heal: A First Book for Surviving Child Sexual Abuse, Harper Collins, 1993

Herman, Judith, Trauma & Recovery, New York, Basic Books, 1992

Parnell, Laurel, Transforming Trauma:  EMDR, New York, W.W. Norton & Company,, 1997

www.helpguide.org - PTSD in Military Veterans - This website give an enormous amount of information about PTSD symptoms, and different options of treatment.