The majority of us will experience a range of traumatic experiences during our lifetimes. Those could be family, career, or relationship-related experiences. Basically, traumatic events can occur in any area of one’s life. It is a result of different stressors along with our brains’ design that make traumas a common part of the human experience.
Tricia Ebel, a licensed therapist in Colorado, explains that trauma is “anything that the brain experiences as overwhelmingly painful”. That is because trauma is about how we perceive an event rather than its real proportions. Trauma is not the same for everyone, it affects people differently. Something that one person perceives as highly disturbing may not qualify as trauma for somebody else and vice-versa. Also how people respond to trauma depends on many factors including personal characteristics and social factors.
Not infrequently we deny the impact of a specific experience or avoid labeling it as trauma, considering it of little consequence. By doing that not only we are being hypocritical with ourselves, but we also ruin our chances for healing and growing. There are also people who lack self-awareness and never really realize that their behavior responses are direct results of a traumatic incident they once lived.
“Trauma is something we ALL endure. Sometimes we assume trauma isn’t a part of our story because we think “it wasn’t that bad”. I’m convinced that is not true and that we all need triaged care to help catapult us into better ways of engaging our worlds, workplaces, communities, and families.”, Tricia explains.
Trauma has a significant impact on our bodies and mental well-being, it leaves people struggling with uncomfortable and/or distracting emotions and interferes with their ability to generate appropriate responses to specific trauma-related situations. The effects of trauma on someone are not always obvious, but one thing is certain: trauma shapes us and our relationships whether we are aware of it or not.
What does Tricia think about the way traumatic experiences change us?
“I don’t think it’s possible for trauma not to change us. Ideally, this change will be for the betterment of ourselves and our world, but sometimes it’s through re-enacting the pain in a way that is actually more harmful to ourselves and others. We can’t embrace trauma as a general notion but rather embrace it as a part of our histories in efforts to make peace with it so that we can move on. “
Trauma, contrary to popular belief, involves the physical as well as the mental. Some common physical responses to trauma are fatigue, insomnia, agitation, physical pain. Delayed reactions to trauma can include nightmares, sleep and eating disorders and can also lead to developing chronic health conditions related to stress.
Considering her broad experience with clients, I asked Tricia with what aspects of trauma do people struggle the most:
“There is no doubt that all iterations of trauma are brutal to overcome. However, there is sometimes more care provided when we see something as significantly traumatic and less care provided when something is more covert. One of my trauma trainers told me the saying: “the more subtle, the more satanic,” because it can be crazy-making for some to feel inner anguish but not understand that their pain is not just in their head – it’s actually trauma. ”
Letting trauma stay in our bodies and heads compromises the quality of our lives, so it is imperative that we find time and energy to uncover it and process it. Usually, healing trauma properly requires the guidance of an experienced healing practitioner that can mentally lead you through your experience and help you gain insight into your trauma without making you re-live it. “A lot of healing practitioners actually do not know how to not let trauma be rumination and it leads to simply reliving the harm again and again in a way that is really unhelpful.”
Tricia shares some of the common mistakes people make while trying to cope with trauma or its consequences: “Anytime we are talking about our trauma in a way that is completely flooded, overwhelmed, triggered, or panicked is not healing (hyper-aroused), and anytime we are talking about it as if we are reporters telling someone else’s story is also not helpful (hypo-aroused). The problem is that these ways of telling our trauma stories are always how we begin them – so a therapist has to teach how to re-engage the story so that it touches on a different part of the body and mind and essentially re-grows part of the brain to no longer ruminate but instead re-process and grow. “
She affirms that we cannot heal trauma by talking about it cognitively. “It must engage the body and emotional part of us. It also cannot flood our beings either, because then our brains get overwhelmed and shut down, so it’s a delicate balance.”
One of the most visible signs of suffering the consequences of a traumatic experience is getting easily triggered. Tricia uses a simple, yet powerful question to make her clients pause and think about what lays beneath their responses when they feel triggered.
The question ” How old do you feel?”, “is often – initially – met with a confused look that ultimately transforms into a primal experience of younger memories.”
Tricia explains that this practice allows us “to unearth those young places” and resource them as our bodies are then “in a raw, exposed place”.
“It is in that place that we can then resource the under-resourced parts of ourselves (found by giving empathy, contending with self-hatred, giving space to voiceless parts of ourselves, etc.) and then actually get authentically mature in the present moment because our young parts “grow up” as we care for them.”
She also shares her own story about those under-resourced parts of ourselves that we need to heal and supply with compassion and love.
“For the first five years that I was married, I constantly felt triggered by playing board games with my partner. Every time I lost or was on the brink of losing, I became extremely triggered and distressed. It even led to me knocking the board off the table! Since it was becoming a clear problem for us in times of trying to play and be light-hearted, I began to ask myself how old I felt in those moments and what I needed. Any time it happened, I made space to recuperate in quiet, to color in an adult coloring book (a very young activity in my opinion), and to then re-engage with my partner who was able to show me unconditional positive regard (IE I asked him to not judge my outbursts so long as I didn’t insult him in the process). Over time, I healed. But it took a long time. We have to be willing to let the young parts of ourselves not be rushed in this process. “
Here is what Tricia tells us about emotional well-being practices:
“I have SO many practices to enhance my emotional wellness. It takes a ton of belief in myself and my worth to spend time protecting and strengthening my heart. So finding a setting that enhances your belief in your worth/deep value is one of the best things that you can do.”
She also shared two possible strategies for those who have a hard time finding their emotional balance or feel emotionally overwhelmed:
- “Journal three unedited, non-composed, potentially rude pages every morning. No more (because if we easily get overwhelmed we need a limit), no less (because we need to learn how to grow our tolerance of ourselves). “
- “Find a caring and compassionate therapist who can teach you containment and explore where you learned that no one would be there for you. (That’s not always the reason why we become hysterical but I find it’s a common starting place.)”