What is trauma?
Happy 2020! Starting the new year with a blog post on trauma might seem a bit pessimistic (we will have a goal setting resource coming out soon – stay tuned!). However, there are a couple of very important events and dates in the month of January that need acknowledging and proper processing.
One of them being the bushfire tragedy that has affected our country; and the other – Australia or Invasion Day. Officially, it is known as Australia Day, however some believe it should be called Invasion Day, due to the significant effects of colonialism Indigenous Australians experienced after this date.
Both of these events may have had a severe impact on our mental wellbeing in different ways. For example, the sheer shock of the magnitude of the bushfires in itself may have had us feeling rattled about the state of the world, but for some of us, the impact of the bushfires would have been much more direct, and may have threatened the safety of our friends, family, or even ourselves.
Australia/Invasion Day, which was celebrated on the 26th and 27th of January this year, also has severe ties to the experience of trauma. As a non-Indigenous Australian, I personally do not feel fit to comment on these experiences; however, I can empathise that it may be a particularly triggering time for Indigenous Australians. The sources linked to this blog post articulate some of the experiences that may be associated with the date.
Whilst the start of the year is typically marked by motivations to set new goals and intentions, it can often be hard to tap into that New Year energy when there are burdens we are carrying with us. Therefore, opening up a discussion about the different types of trauma that may be affecting us, and what we can do about it may help us to heal and move on productively before we start smashing goals in the new year.
What is trauma?
Firstly, defining trauma in itself can be a task. It can manifest, be triggered by, and look completely different between individuals. However, psychological bodies and resources such as the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) both paint trauma to be a psychological and/or physiological response to an event or situation that is perceived to be severely distressing. In other words, it is a response to either a singular event, or a prolonged situation, in which the brain and the body are overwhelmed.
Examples of situations that may be potentially traumatising include:
- Natural disasters (bush fires, flash floods, earthquakes, etc.)
- Being victim to, or involved in, situations where one's physical safety is in severe danger
- Being exposed to images (via news, social media, etc.) of these situations.
What are the different kinds of trauma?
There are many different kinds of trauma. Firstly, trauma can be acute (reactions resulting from a single incident, such as a car accident); or chronic (trauma that comes from repeated and prolonged exposure to a traumatic situation, such as abuse or violence).
Recent psychological research into the concept of Intergenerational trauma has highlighted it as a distinct form of trauma.  Intergenerational Trauma suggests that experiences of trauma can be passed down generations. In Australia, Intergenerational Trauma predominantly impacts the children, grandchildren and future generations of the Stolen Generation, highlighting the lasting effects of colonialism.
Reactions to the same sort of traumatic event are not always the same between individuals. For example, some might experience trauma as a reaction in the body – we might feel tense in our muscles in a situation that feels uncomfortable to us, or have an elevated heart rate. For others, trauma may elicit extreme emotional reactions, such as anger, anxiety, or loneliness for example. The way a person reacts to trauma is dependent on a multitude of factors, including the traumatic event itself (the severity, duration and type of trauma), the person's natural resilience to traumatic situations, the person's personality traits, as well as the person's resources (friends, family, doctors) in the aftermath of the event.
How can trauma affect our lives?
Trauma can affect us in many different ways, and it has a major impact on our physical and mental health. It can hinder us from moving on to a new part of our lives- one part of us wants to move forward while another part is entrapped in the past. It can impact our self-esteem and our belief in our autonomy. Trauma is not an isolated ‘thing’; instead, it can impact many other areas of our lives.
Common experiences of trauma may include:
- Feeling emotionally 'numb'
- Feeling highly strung or highly emotional
- Feeling highly anxious and on edge
- Continual fatigue
- Poor memory or concentration
- Intrusive thoughts
- Change in appetite
- Feelings of shame
What can we do about trauma?
Even if it may seem impossible, our trauma does not define who we are. Equipped with the right kind of help, we can effectively digest the event and our reactions to it and move forward with our lives.
Some important things to remember when recovering from trauma are firstly, to recognise that you have been through something highly emotionally taxing, and that is it normal to have a reaction to it. Secondly, practice being kind to yourself and reminding yourself that you are trying your best in managing the experience. Finally, try not to bottle up your feelings and instead, give yourself the permission and the space to talk about it to someone who you trust.
Whilst these things may sound easy on paper, they can be challenging, and relying on others who can provide professional help may be extremely beneficial in these situations. It is important to find a psychologist that is suited to you and your needs when embarking on the journey to face your trauma. If you would like to seek out some help, our individual therapy services can help you with this.