Working with trauma

What is trauma?

Trauma occurs when a person is overwhelmed by events that are happening to them, and responds with intense fear, helplessness, and powerlessness. It may be described as a wound that injures a person emotionally, psychologically and physiologically and can result in severe traumatic stress overwhelming resilience and capacity to cope.

Trauma is not ‘just stress’. We each have the ability to respond to very stressful situations and then return to a state of equilibrium. However, if the situation is not merely stressful but so overwhelming in its intensity that a person is unable to cope with the accompanying feelings of helplessness, shame or terror, (for example in cases of complex trauma resulting from childhood sexual abuse or domestic abuse) and cannot re-establish a sense of safety, the survival mechanisms may remain on ‘high alert’ continually responding to even the smallest incident that may be perceived as being threatening. Then, that person has become traumatised.

Dr Bessel van der Kolk says:

“Trauma is not the story of something that has happened back then, it’s the current imprint of that pain and fear living inside people.”

Thus, the traumatic event is that which threatens the life or safety of an individual, or someone close to them. Traumatic events can be short lived or one off, or they can be chronic: chronic trauma is experience of recurring events over a prolonged time.

Chronic or complex trauma may impair the person’s ability to form relationships and it can also be caused by witnessing violence. Children growing up with domestic abuse can have a wide range of trauma symptoms that can impair emotional or psychological development and have a long term impact on physical health and wellbeing.

Toxic stress is the result of repeated exposure to traumatic events – domestic abuse, childhood sexual abuse, commercial sexual exploitation – there the survivor’s body’s stress response system gets ‘stuck’ and equilibrium can never be achieved.

Anyone who experiences toxic stress can come to see almost all situations as danger or a threat: an outlook that can impact their view of the world and make building relationships and trust difficult.

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