Written by Bonnie Balsamo, LCSW
Trauma and suffering are words that we are all familiar with. For some us the mere mention of trauma and suffering brings an intense emotional reaction that can hold us hostage and even be gut wrenching. Trauma exists across systems, cultures and communities and affects us without discrimination through man made suffering or natural disasters. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) more than half of the adult population has been exposed to at least one traumatic event, and 90% of clients in public behavioral health settings have experienced trauma. These statistics do not include the trauma that has gone unreported or unacknowledged in our country.
What is trauma?
Most of us will experience some level of distress in our lifetimes, some minor incidents and others that are more intense. These challenges can help us build resilience and explore who we are. It can help us rise up and make positive change for our families and our communities as well as help us become stronger as we overcome adversity. However, sometimes a traumatic event and the suffering it causes can overwhelm our ability to cope. We find that it breaks down the resilience that we once had and leaves us lost in shock, in fear and feeling helpless. Following this we find ourselves experiencing such symptoms as flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, anxiety, depression and find it hard if not impossible to regulate our emotions. Some of us even turn to substances, some of us may try to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, we may isolate, or make other choices in how we cope that are not ideal.
As a therapist, we utilize the Diagnostic Statistical Manual-5 to help define clinical trauma. It involves being exposed to serious injury, sexual violence or exposure to actual or threatened death in one or more of four ways. The four ways include direct experience, witnessing the experience, learning the event happened to a close family member of friend, or experiencing repeated or extreme exposure of a traumatic event. In addition, being exposed to a traumatic event can impact our social life, work life or other areas of functioning often in negative ways.
What are the effects of trauma?
To understand trauma it is helpful to understand the biology behind it. When we encounter a threat to our sense of safety, our body and mind react with a stress response which sends adrenaline, cortisol, norepinephrine and other chemicals into our body. Shortness of breath, racing heart, muscle tension are the results, and this is where we begin to encounter trouble – stating with our memory of the traumatic event. Normally when we form our memories of an event it is done so with availability of words to identify the concept/understanding of the memory, yet when our coping skills are overwhelmed with a frightening or stressful situation, our amygdala in our brain takes over and we respond via our brain stem with a “flight or flight” reaction to survive. The trauma we are experiencing literally “commandeers” or “hijacks” the thinking part of our brain and affects how our memory of the event is formed. This particular memory becomes imprinted in such a way that these memories are without explanation or verbal understanding. Without awareness from the higher functioning (the thinking brain) part of our brain we only can access the feelings (both emotional and physical) from our memory that there is very real and terrible danger here, even if we don’t understand why. This is why individuals often find themselves unexplainably upset from a simple frown from a partner or from a particular smell, or even from the weather. A current situation “triggers” our past memories, yet we are unable to understand them. We find that we cannot rationalize or reason with this type of trauma and the memory it has formed, for it cannot respond to just our words alone.
How do you treat trauma?
In order to treat our trauma we must work to develop the understanding that we were prohibited in creating during our original formation of our memory. We must develop words and concepts to understand the trauma to help us make sense of it all. But before we can do anything of this, we must acknowledge there is a problem and ask for help.
Regardless of how we choose to heal from our trauma, seeking support and education to help us create new concepts and understanding is crucial. Many find it helpful to focus on such liberating and self-caring skills like grounding, self-wellness, meditation and resource building, (also known as coping skills). Connecting with others who have suffered similar situations can also help ease the isolation trauma brings by helping to us recognize we are not alone. Seeking therapeutic interventions with a trained professional can help us develop strength and discover that there are ways to diminish our pain. If you or a loved one have been through trauma and are experiencing any form of suffering as a result, such as hurt, pain, anger or fear – please reach out and ask for help. Despite how much trouble trauma causes our world, please know that there is always hope for each and every one of us.
Bonnie Balsamo is a Behavioral Health Therapist at NorthLakes Community Clinic – Ashland Downtown. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with her or another therapist, please call 888.834.4551. In addition, Bonnie will be hosting a weekly Trauma Support Group starting April 30. The 6-week group therapy program for women will be from 1 – 2:30 pm in Ashland. If you are interested in participating in the 6-week program, please call (715) 685-2200.