What is trauma?
“A deeply distressing or disturbing experience”.
The word trauma is used to describe experiences or situations that are emotionally painful and distressing and that overwhelm people’s ability to cope, leaving them powerless. Trauma has sometimes been defined in reference to circumstances that are outside the realm of normal human experience. Unfortunately, this definition does not always hold true. For some groups of people, trauma can occur frequently and become part of the common human experience.
There is now a wide body of research indicating that the brains of children who are exposed to chronic trauma and stress are wired differently than children whose experiences have been more secure. When experiencing stress or threat, the brains “fight or flight” response is activated through increased production of the hormone cortisol. While cortisol production can be protective in emergencies, in situations of chronic stress it’s level is toxic and can damage or kill neurons in the critical regions of the brain. Especially damaging is the experience of stressors that occur in an unpredictable fashion, for example,community or domestic violence. In extreme cases, this chronic exposure to trauma causes a state of hyperarousal or disassociation.
Hyperarousal is characterised by:
- An elevated heart rate
- Slightly elevated body temperature
- Constant anxiety
Dissociation involves an internalised response in which the child shuts down, detaches or “freezes” as a maladaptive way of managing overwhelming emotions and or situations. The younger the child is, the more likely they will respond with disassociation. Children are more susceptible to post-traumatic stress because in most situations they are helpless and incapable of either “fight or flight”. A state of learned helplessness can pervade childrens development as they learn, through the repeated experience of overwhelming stress, to abandon the notion that they can impact the course of their lives in a positive way. When trauma or neglect happens early in life and is left untreated, the injuries sustained reverberate to all ensuing developmental stages.
Examples of childhood abuse:
- Physical abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Sexual abuse
- An alcohol or drug abuser in the household
- An incarcerated household member
- A household member who is chronically depressed, or mentally ill
- Mother who is treated violently
- No parents
- Emotional or physical neglect
Di has worked over a very long period of time with children who have experienced trauma including sexual abuse, the youngest being five years of age. She is passionate through her work about the recovery these children/adults can make when they enter into therapy and start to acknowledge that the abuse/trauma was not their fault. They were victims of their situations and often circumstances.
If you have experienced trauma or neglect as a child or adult the first step to recovery is acknowleddging this by picking up the phone. Many people do not, until they feel they are unable to cope anymore, many individuals choose not to take the step due to trust issues. Once the relationship has been formed and the client feels safe to share their emotions then therapy will be effective and the client can start rebuilding their lives.