Healing Trauma

Trauma is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of distressing events which have the potential to produce an emotional response. There are three main categories of trauma including acute trauma, chronic trauma, and complex trauma. Acute trauma results from a single event such as a car accident whereas chronic trauma is characterized by repeated and prolonged trauma like experiencing domestic violence. Complex trauma, however, is exposure to varied and multiple trauma events which are invasive and interpersonal. For example, childhood emotional abuse that impacts the ability to form secure attachments with caregivers as well as later on in adult relationships could be classified as complex trauma. There are a plethora of ways trauma can manifest as well as a multitude of trauma responses people may experience in order to survive. Regardless of what you have gone through, your response to trauma is valid and healing is possible.

Post-Traumatic Stress

Not everyone who experiences trauma may go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and there are other stress responses that may occur instead. The five primary expressions of stress following a traumatic event are Normal Stress Response, Acute Stress Disorder, Uncomplicated PTSD, Complex PTSD, and Comorbid PTSD. A Normal Stress Response arises from tension and stress but can be effectively managed through support and will often last a brief period of time such as a few weeks. Acute Stress Disorder can result from experiencing a single life-threatening or life-altering event and can develop into more long-term PTSD without effective treatment. Uncomplicated PTSD, what we refer to simply as PTSD, is linked to one major traumatic event. PTSD is not just a diagnosis for those who were in active combat but rather can be applicable to a wide range of experiences. Complex PTSD is associated with multiple traumatic events as opposed to one major trauma. Like Complex PTSD, Comorbid PTSD occurs alongside another mental health condition such as Substance Use Disorder. All forms of PTSD and Stress Disorders may exhibit symptoms such as irritability, hypervigilance, isolation, flashbacks, anxiety, mistrust, fear, guilt, loneliness, insomnia, nightmares, detachment, unwanted and intrusive thoughts, and loss of interest and pleasure in previously enjoyed activities.

Trauma Responses

When we experience a traumatic event, our parasympathetic nervous system and our amygdala launch into overdrive, meaning our body is unable to regulate itself and our brain becomes overly sensitive to perceived threats even when they are actually false alarms. Many people may be familiar with the primary trauma responses of fight, flight, and freeze; however, there are also additional responses of fawn, flood, and fatigue also known as flop. Fight is characterized by confronting a perceived threat using anger, defiance, or even explosive outbursts as a survival mechanism. Flight, on the other hand, is fleeing due to a perceived threat and may manifest as anxiety, fidgeting, and over-analyzing. When people are immobilized when faced with a perceived threat, this is referred to as the freeze response. In some instances, this may stem from the instinct that animals also have to “play dead” and can look like spacing out, brain fog, or numbness. Fawn shows up as attempting to placate a perceived threat and can look like people-pleasing, flattery, fear of expressing oneself, and other codependent traits and behaviors. Flood means to be “flooded” with emotions in response to a perceived threat and can often look like various expressions of emotional dysregulation. Lastly, the fatigue or flop response is when someone shuts down when facing a threat, which can show up as anything between becoming sleepy to fully dissociating.

Healing Trauma

Although there are a variety of trauma types and ways individuals respond to trauma, there are also a range of pathways towards recovery. Community support is incredibly vital to the healing process; however, some trauma survivors may also need to work with a mental health professional to create a trauma narrative that encourages more in-depth processing. Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) are both common treatments designed specifically to address trauma. In addition, somatic exercises and practices have proven to be effective because the physical body tends to hold onto and store traumatic memories and experiences longer than it takes to cognitively process the event itself. Meditation, mindfulness, and other self-care practices can also be grounding when navigating trauma healing. If you or someone you know is struggling with healing from a traumatic experience, consider reaching out to Embrace Therapy for resources, support, and more.

If you are having anxious thoughts and they are debilitating, I strongly encourage you to seek the support of a mental health clinician. My patients have experienced relief and you can too.

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