Updated: Nov 8, 2021
This month was the screening of Dr. Gabor Mate’s new documentary ‘The wisdom of Trauma.’ If you haven’t heard of Gabor Mate (pronounced Mat-ay) , he is a world-renowned medical doctor, specialising in addiction and trauma. He is also the author of ‘In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts,’ ‘The Cost of Hidden Stress’ and many more. I watched the premier of the documentary this week and have also recently read ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk. This is why I wanted to share some of what I have learned about trauma and how its' effects are more widely relevant than you may have initially thought.
The widely accepted definition of ‘Trauma’ is a state resulting from situations which are too overwhelming for a child or adult to fully process at the time at which they occur. The extreme big T traumas are situations such as: war, natural disasters, losing a loved one witnessing or carrying out extreme violence, rape, experiencing any kind of abuse; be it emotional, physical or sexual, e.g being a victim of stalking. This list is not exclusive. When the word ‘Trauma’ is used, most of us think of the most extreme ‘big T’ situations.
Dr. Mate goes one step further and tells us that trauma occurs as a result of any overwhelming situation that one faces and feels they have to deal with it all on their own. You can see that this not only encompasses less extreme situations, but it also focuses upon the level of support we feel we have at the time and whether or not we feel safe enough to share our emotions with others. This definition includes painful situations such as childhood bullying, parental arguing or divorce, illness, moving home or school (particularly for children), the end of a relationship, being in an accident and so on.
The real point that Dr. Mate makes: is that it’s not the extremity of the event that occurs that matters, so much as the impact of it upon the individual and if they have anyone they can talk to about it. Many of us are surrounded by loving family, but even that is not necessarily an indicator as to whether we feel comfortable or safe enough to share our emotional distress with them, as children or as adults. So you can see that, most of us have experienced some trauma in our lives, and the effect of that trauma can have more of an impact upon us depending upon whether we have a strong support network, or whether we feel we have to carry the emotional burden all by ourselves.
If an emotionally painful experience gets stuffed down into the subconscious and not dealt with or ‘processed’ in the conscious mind, then it can start to generate a trauma response in the individual. We’ll talk about what the trauma response looks like in a moment. It is important to note that most of us have had more than one painful event occur during the span of our lifetime, or unfortunately perhaps will, as this is just the nature of life. The more of these events that go unprocessed and stuffed down inside, the more likely that the mind and body will begin to react to this stored tension.
How Trauma can show up in our thinking and behaviour (not to be used as a medical diagnostic tool)
Hypervigilance. Because our sympathetic nervous system is stuck in ‘ON’ mode, we are wired to detect threats, even when they really aren’t any. In thoughts, this can play out as
Anxiety- always waiting for the next thing to go wrong and an inability to relax, even when everything is going fine. Because our amygdala is stuck in ‘ON’ mode, when we do sense a threat, we can get triggered easily. This means that if we feel a threat, it can result in an
Overreaction. This is because we don’t react to the new situation in front of us, but the old trauma and the feelings associated with it. This is related to how the memory works and how unprocessed trauma is effectively ‘stuck’ in the brain. This overreaction looks different in different people. It can look like any of these below, depending on what trauma was experienced and how we reacted to it. At the base of all of these responses is a feeling of intense fear and pain:
Fight-shouting, screaming, anger, swearing, physical threats
Flight-running away, avoidance, storming out of the room, refusing to take calls, no eye contact
Freeze-dissociation (daydreaming or going into a trancelike absence) clamming up, not speaking, staring at t.v or phone, refusing to cooperate, not making eye contact
Fawn- lack of boundaries, gives compliments, people pleasing, not able to stand-up for, or advocate for yourself well, defers to others in decision making, (all can be codependent traits)
Defensiveness we might perceive any comment as a personal attack and find it hard to take criticism as a result (even constructive)
Inability to sit still or relax- fidgeting, constantly ‘doing’ or making plans. Chronic over-scheduling
Fear of being alone with our thoughts- a desire to be with others at all times, or using unhealthy numbing behaviours/substances when alone e.g. binge eating, drinking alcohol, drug use, addictive social media use etc.
Interrupted sleep or Insomnia as a result of having an overactive amygdala (part of the brain) which is stuck ‘on’
Difficulty with trust in any relationships- not sharing or wanting to open up to anyone.
Inability to understand our own emotions this means we’re not sure what we feel, even though we might feel very strongly.
So what should you do if you recognise yourself in any of the behaviours above? If you feel you are stuck in stress mode, find yourself blowing up at people, feel paranoid or untrusting? In my experience, there are many pieces to the recovery ‘puzzle.’ Some of these may work better for one individual over another, but in likelihood, multiple tools will be needed. Here are some of the tools that have worked for me, or other trauma survivors I know:
-talk therapy including CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy)
-EMDR (eye-movement desensitisation and reprocessing)
-embodiment practices such as: Nei Gong/Qi Gong, Trauma-informed Yoga, Ecstatic breath work, (these are essential in order to build a connection between the mind and the physical body- which can be severely disrupted as a result of trauma)
Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk is a world leader in the study and treatment of trauma. He tells us that “One of the clearest lessons from contemporary neuroscience is that our sense of ourselves is anchored in a vital connection to our bodies. We do not truly know ourselves unless we can feel and interpret our physical sensations. We need to register and act on these sensations in order to navigate safely through life.” This is why these practices are often a good place to start if you are not ready to talk about your experiences.
- a strong social network (face to face)
-prioritising time for rest and joy, leaving ‘white space’ in the schedule
-Art and creation
-physical exercise x3 a week
-12 step Recovery and abstinence from alcohol/drugs
-lessening sugar and caffeine from diet
-eating a nutritionally balanced diet free of processed foods
-medication (SSRI’s, Dopamine re uptake blockers etc.)
Overcoming Trauma, however long ago the original event occurred, is definitely possible. No one deserves to stay in a permanent state of heightened arousal, always waiting for the next thing to go wrong. It’s no way to live. If you recognise yourself or anyone you know in this post, then feel free to reach out. Whilst I’m no therapist, I can point you in the direction of people and places that may help. Why not start with a breath work meditation designed to calm, ground and centre you if you ever feel triggered or anxious?
4x4 GROUNDING BOX BREATH: For times when your trauma response feels triggered, and you are angry, fearful or very off-centre and need instant calming. [I share this one with real thanks to my mentor Elizabeth Kipp, who shared this one with me when I needed it.]
Sit on a seat with both feat firmly planted on the ground, or sit cross legged. If you can't stay still, then a gentle rocking motion can be helpful.
Feel your pulse on the left or right hand side of your wrist. If you can't find it then feel on either side of your throat with two fingers.
Breathe in for 4 counts (of your pulse), Hold for 4 counts. Exhale for 4 counts and hold the breath out for 4 counts.
Repeat! Concentrate on the feeling and rhythm of your pulse. If your mind is very full of thoughts, then you can mentally chant the mantra SAT on the inhale, and NAM on the exhale.
Try to do this for at least 3 minutes. It will bring you back into your body, slow your breath and help the difficult feelings to pass through you.
You can find out more about trauma in my mental health library. I also hold a free weekly online meeting, where we read the book by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk and share on our experience, strength and hope! Please come and join in if you would like to know more.