• Soo Woods

Understanding Trauma

and the impact it has on us

The word ‘trauma’ is often used in everyday language, which may detract from its true meaning. It is also sometimes used interchangeable with ‘stress’. So what exactly is ‘trauma’ and how does it differ from ‘stress’?

Stress is a reaction to life’s experiences. It may be mental, emotional or physical. When the trigger is gone, we usually return to a state of balance. Trauma occurs when our system is put into a state of overwhelm. It is the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds our ability to cope with the emotions involved with an experience. Traumatic events may be life-threatening, are always devastating and deeply distressing. Unless appropriately processed, we may not so easily return to a state of balance. Individuals who have experienced trauma are at a much higher risk of developing addiction and substance use disorders. Traumatic events look different for us all and what affects one may not affect another. This is based on our individual resilience, ie the ability to handle stress. Society expectations often contribute to the creation of traumatic situations, wit

h people not able/allowed to/feeling safe to openly express their emotions, kids told to "be quiet", "not now" … any of this sounding familiar? Statistics indicate that trauma is a common part of human experience here in Australia. Statistics tell us some people are more vulnerable to potential traumatic experiences; this includes but is not limited to people with disabilities, homeless persons, women and children experiencing family and domestic violence. It is my opinion and experience that more sensitive people tend to be more affected by traumatic events. Trauma can also be passed down intergenerationally. We can break traumatic events into two categories:

* Big ‘T’ traumas might be (the threat of) serious injury, sexual violence, life-threatening experiences. In general, really harrowing situations. These tend to be once-off situations. * Little ‘t’ traumas most often occur during child and adolescent development. They are highly distressing events that affect individuals but don’t fall into the big ‘T’ basket. They often recur. Eg emotional abuse, loss of a pet, bullying, being neglected or ignored, loss of significant relationship.

Evidence has now concluded that repeat exposure to little ‘t’ traumas can cause more emotional harm than exposure to a single big ‘T’ traumatic event. In fact, minimising the impact of little ‘t’ traumas can result in adverse coping mechanisms, such as bottling up emotions or managing uncomfortable symptoms with substance abuse.

When we explore what lies behind many mental health diagnoses, we will almost always find trauma lurking in the underworld. Trauma usually plays a key role in the symptoms that are experienced by mental health cases. I believe that some mental health nomenclature is unfair. For example, I prefer to call PTSD ‘PTSI’ – post traumatic stress injury, which is so much more appropriate. It was and never will be a ‘disorder’.

Instead of (self-)shaming and (self-)judgement of coping mechanisms, we need to practice (self-)compassion and (self-)forgiveness. There is no blame. To the contrary, we/they are actually showing a highly intelligent survival response.

The good news is that if we can explore the body and unconscious mind, find the underlying cause of a problem, ie the root cause, we can heal it and thus bring about change throughout our system. Healing may be for an individual – but will also pass along the past and future generational line.

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