Lately, we’ve heard the words “trauma,” “victim,” and “survivor.” The phrases “person who has or has been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)” and “the need to become more trauma-informed” also are becoming more common. In recent years, there has been an increase in this language, primarily after the #MeToo movement and continued, repeated violent events in this world. Rather than holding it in and internalizing difficult experiences, many persons are beginning to feel comfortable using their voices outwardly. The power of individual storytelling and the media are incredible. They can literally change the world.
What is trauma?
Trauma is an emotional response to a distressing event that affects the way a person lives. Trauma comes in different forms. Trauma is or can be perceived as life-threatening. It can occur as a single event or as a series of events over time (complex trauma). Trauma can be an unexpected loss, such as the loss of a person, job, or ability. It can come in the form of a natural disaster. Trauma can be vicarious, where we experience it indirectly but are distressed after learning of upsetting information. Trauma can be transferred through multiple generations in a family through their own difficult, lived experiences. I can write an entire essay about “what trauma is,” but what I would say is: It can happen to anyone. No one is exempt. In fact, trauma is what led me to my own career path in my helping role as a clinician and working with survivors.
Trauma isn’t new
In light of all of the media attention it’s receiving, trauma seems like a newer term. However, trauma has always existed. It’s something that we all recognize, generation after generation. We may know or use another word in place of it. We see it daily in the news and media that we consume. We read about it in books. We see it expressed in documentaries, the arts, and music. We learn of it from friends. We see it in our parents’, grandparents’, and great-grandparents’ eyes as they tell stories of struggles they’ve experienced. We can almost feel it.
Life before trauma
Life before trauma can be perceived as a “lost fantasy” at times, because trauma can lead us to miss who we were before the event(s). In life before trauma, there might not be any depression, anxiety, flashbacks, fear of leaving home or being in crowds, or constantly feeling the need to look behind your back because you feel unsafe. Life before trauma is preferable. We may mourn the loss of all that we believe is gone forever. Everyone’s “life before” is different. For some, the “life before” was the time in between repeated traumatic events, leading up to one larger event that helped increase our perspective and the need for change.
Life during trauma
Life during trauma is terrifying. There is no better word to describe what it feels like when your life is – or you feel like your life is – in immediate danger. It’s terrifying – and more. Most every person is born with a response of “fight,” “flight, or “freeze.” We might want to fight and protect ourselves and others. We may want to run until we can’t anymore. Or we might freeze in terror or defeat. Trauma looks and sounds different for everyone. There is no “cookie cutter” reaction.
Life after trauma
Life after trauma is different for each person. Two people can witness the same event, but experience and react to the event in an entirely different manner. One person may block the event from their memory, remembering the event later after experiencing a trigger, such as the survivor of sexual assault who passes by someone wearing the same cologne as their perpetrator. Another person may “bottle it in,” hold in their feelings until the stress comes out in other forms, such as irritability, outbursts of anger, isolation, changes in personality/relationships, and/or addictions to self-medicate the emotional and physical pain.
Help is available
Talking about past trauma can be fear-inducing. We can be left feeling vulnerable and emotionally raw. However, it’s important to realize that you’re not alone. Help is available.
It’s vital to ask for help, to process, and begin to restore your whole self. Even if you’re not entirely ready to process your trauma, seeking support is a start. Professionals will respect this choice.
Left untreated, trauma can be held in the body. Our bodies remember. Survivors of trauma often struggle with digestive and immune disorders. This is because stress is held in the body, primarily in the immune system which is affected by bacteria in the gut. Ever get a sick stomach before a big test or an important event? That’s stress. Now, add trauma or repeated traumas to the mix. Imagine what that stress does to a person’s long-term health and well-being.
Self-care is important
With trauma, we’re often at a loss for control. This is why self-care is so very important. Self-care is what we do have control of: Our mind, our body, and our spirit.
- Self-care tips for your mind: Find something that you can do just for you. The creative arts can be incredibly healing as we find a way to express ourselves rather than through traditional conversation. You’re keeping your mind active and focused on the present moment rather than what happened to you in the past (which is not happening now, in the present moment).
- Self-care tips for your body: Find and maintain a primary care provider (PCP) and specialists. Eat well. Exercise. Never miss an annual exam. By doing so, you’re taking care of your body. It sure deserves to be treated well.
- Self-care tips for your spirit: Nourish your spirit. If you enjoy the outdoors, spend time in nature, such as gardening or going on a short hike. Spend time meditating. Take a yoga class for relaxation, not fitness (that’s a side bonus). Join a community that meets your faith.
Self-care can help you reclaim a solid identity and keep you motivated to stick to a routine.
A new daily normal
After trauma, we don’t want to solely “survive.” We want to “thrive.” Bring the strengths and positives of the past to the present along with all the new pieces picked up along the way. Recreate and accept a new daily normal.
Healing may be difficult. It’s not linear. There’s no timeline on the process. However, it will happen. Be patient. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself the time you need to heal. Keep a journal to review your progress.
Recognize negative thoughts and emotions as temporary rather than permanent or something to fear. Barriers and other stressful life events may occur, but by maintaining routine and using healthy coping skills, you will know exactly what to do to help yourself.
Trauma is treatable. Trauma is healable. Life after trauma is livable.
You matter – and you always will.
Mallory Hendricks, MS, LPC, is a licensed professional counselor. She authored this story while serving as the lead clinician for the general population outpatient team in Adult Ambulatory (Outpatient) Services at Pittsburgh Mercy.
If you or someone you know needs help with overcoming a past trauma, please call contact us at 1-877-637-2924.
Disclaimer: This story does not constitute professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or recommendations of any kind. You should always seek the advice of your qualified health care professionals with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your individual needs and medical conditions.