Trauma occurs when a loved one dies unexpectedly, when a child is assaulted, or when caregivers violate boundaries. It can occur as a result of an accident or as a result of being beaten for being the wrong colour, religion, or sexual orientation. It occurs during a rape. It does not only occur in the presence of “evil” strangers or natural disasters; it also occurs within families and in the name of love. Having stated that, what is trauma? By its very nature, it is frightening and overpowering, preparing your body and mind for impending danger and threat. According to Freud, “trauma renders the victim absolutely impotent and ineffective.” Trauma alters physiology by causing shock, denial, dissociation, freezing, or suppression in response to momentary overwhelm. This is true for both reactions to the aforementioned “major traumas” and the more mundane “daily triggers.” A trauma victim may feel compelled to defend themselves owing to the overwhelming nature of the situation. Many victims will do so even if they have no memory of the triggering incident. Much of the trauma can be concealed and is often contingent upon the circumstances around the traumatic incident.
Our response to trauma is specifically dictated by our ability to manage the incident that has occurred in question. This is true regardless of how harsh or intense the event was for the individual. If we are able to control our response through defence or escape, it becomes part of our cumulative experience and we are able to move on in most cases. When we think about it, we will categorise it as an elevated emotional experience as well as an elevated level of emotional arousal.
Our brains react in a very different way when we are confronted with an experience that we perceive as being so dangerous that we are unlikely to survive it (or we think it to be unsurvivable). Our memories are frozen in our minds at that point. It is, in recovery, necessary to shift the view of our main survival brain from a state of everlasting helplessness to one of stable and ongoing control in order to recover from such an experience. To move trauma memories and the triggers connected with them into the past, we must first change our recollections of them. In effect, we are changing the threat from one that is emotionally attached to us but is not a threat but no longer has influence over us to one that no longer has control over us. Working on mental and physical feelings that deceive our minds and bodies into believing that a threat is imminent rather than that it has passed is essential. These sensations are only related in the present because of our current level of stress, which has triggered old protection strategies that were initially developed to deal with an incident that has long since occurred.
If we can accomplish all of this, we will be able to shift our perception of ourselves from that of a trauma victim to that of a trauma survivor. That sounds incredibly simple, doesn’t it? No, this is a difficult task that is highly dependent on the individual concerned as well as the type of trauma they have endured.
Understanding the physiological effects of trauma might assist victims in coming to grips with their symptoms. When our natural defences of fight or flight are unavailable, we freeze (as in the original event). During this so-called “immobility reaction,” trauma-related symptoms get immobilised in the body. Animals have adapted to control their systems by “body shaking,” and some therapies promote this. The majority of trauma responses are mired in arousal, shutting down, and incomplete defence mechanisms. As our system attempts to control itself, it “short circuits.” Repeated exposure to trauma triggers might exacerbate the situation. Experiencing a trauma response activates the most primal survival mechanism in our brain, permanently placing the victim in a state of alarm. At this moment, our brain’s higher centres are more difficult to access. As a means of protection, the body and neurological system are dysregulated. This endeavour frequently results in chaos and turmoil. Change must begin with an attempt to gain entrance to the conscious mind.
Daily, trauma survivors struggle to cope. Our bodies do not lie, and trauma leaves a permanent imprint. Sufferers with a high level of trauma are extraordinarily sensitive to almost anything, but especially when it is connected to the original event. Triggers frequently re-establish behaviours and thoughts that were employed to defend against the traumatic occurrence. When we feel uneasy in the moment, we will mentally flee as a reaction to the imagined threat. Dissociation, numbness, and shutting down are all frequent defence mechanisms. However, patients may also encounter additional difficulties such as increased anxiety, depression, a lack of trust, rigid boundaries, a need for control, intrusive thoughts and a range of mental disorder.
So, what can be done in this situation? There are three stages of recovery, according to conventional wisdom:
Stage 1: Establishment of a Safe Environment
A traumatic incident can completely demolish your preconceived notions of safety. This is the detrimental impact you have on your own sense of self-worth and worthiness. Shame and guilt are frequently at the root of this unfavourable perception of oneself. The sense of safety and trust that you have is built early in life, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and trauma shatters that sense of safety and trust. One of the goals of this first stage is to assist you in re-establishing your fundamental sense of safety and trust.
It is critical to discuss with your therapist your history of traumatic events, your family history, and your interpersonal interactions during this initial period of treatment.
The quality of your relationship with your therapist is important to the effectiveness of your therapy. You must be at ease with the therapist in order to benefit from his or her services. You require a sense of security and trust, which have been taken away from you as a result of the trauma.
The goal at this stage is to feel more stable in your life, rather than chaotic and out of control, so that you can go on. This includes not just taking a thorough medical history but also undergoing examinations or evaluations to determine how much you are dissociating and the severity of the trauma. This is necessary so that you and your therapist can decide the appropriate speed, evaluate the need for stabilisation, and determine how to proceed to the second stage, which is Remembrance and Mourning, as needed.
Clients frequently want to get through this first stage as quickly as possible in order to get to the healing stage, but safety and stabilisation are essential in order to be successful in later stages of trauma resolution.
Stage 2: Observance of Remembrance and Mourning
Trauma can only be resolved when the survivor creates a new mental’schema’ for comprehending what has happened to him or her. During Stage 2, you inform the therapist about your traumatic experiences. The horrific experiences have most often been recalled without emotion, with only fragmentary memory, or as a sequence of still photos in your mind’s eye. It is critical that you begin to attach words or sentiments to the recollection as soon as possible, if at all possible. Perhaps you can identify the sensations that you are experiencing in your body.
It is naming the trauma that may restore a sense of power to you that has been taken away from you in the past. It is entirely up to you how much agony, guilt, and shame you are willing to face and endure. Sharing aspects of your experiences or being willing to face them head on is unquestionably a courageous decision. It’s possible that discussing your experience will bring up unpleasant emotions in the listener. It will be necessary at this time to refer back to the tactics that you acquired during Stage 1 in order to help you feel comfortable while you go through the process of remembering. This will assist you in remaining in the ‘Window of Tolerance,’ and you will feel more empowered as a result.
It is necessary to strike a balance between feeling safe and confronting one’s past. Together with your therapist, you will determine the pace of the work. There are no restrictions on the amount of time you may spend in each of the three phases of recovery or on the number of times you can return to a previous stage.
Stage 3: Reconnection with the outside world
In the second stage, you will have mourned the loss of your former self, which was destroyed by the trauma; now you must create a new self. Your previous ideas, which gave significance to your existence, have been tested, and you must now establish new ties in order to move forward. It is critical that you commit sufficient time and energy to your own personal well-being throughout this final stage. This entails taking care of your physical well-being, as well as your environment, your financial necessities, and your interpersonal interactions.
The goal is to emerge from the experience with a sense of empowerment and connectivity to oneself and one’s surroundings. During this step, you may want to go over any of the safety issues that you discussed during the previous stage again. As you prepare to reconnect with people, you may find that you need to re-establish a sense of security.
At this point, it is possible to let go and forgive yourself, even though you had no influence over the event that occurred. Now is a good time to embrace the positive aspects of your personality. They become a part of your new self as time goes on. You now believe that you are capable of protecting yourself. If you have been assaulted, you may want to consider taking a self-defense training.
Erik Erickson devised the Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development, which are still in use today. They include a sense of self-direction, initiative, competence, identity, and intimacy, among other things. These are all adversely affected by the trauma, and it is this that contributes to the difficulties in recovering from it.
When you are in Stage 3 of recovery, you are concentrating on concerns of identity and intimacy. When you reach Stage 3, the trauma should have faded into the past, and there should be no longer be any barriers to closeness that were there in the previous stages. It is possible that recovery will not be complete. When people are stressed, the symptoms of trauma can reoccur. Although the skills for self-care that you could learn in therapy will be really beneficial during these times, they will also be extremely beneficial in general.