What is Trauma?
Trauma happens just as sure as life happens. We can be happily bumbling along one minute and the next, reeling from the shock of an unexpected event. Trauma is a deeply distressing experience that leaves you feeling overwhelmed, helpless, hopeless, angry and scared. Many people describe a huge sense of loss following a traumatic event. Trauma affects both the mind and body, resulting in a set of symptoms, that continue long after the event has ended. The effects of a traumatic experience can seep through families, friends, colleagues and neighbourhoods leaving a trail of devastation and sorrow that can feel never-ending.
We can be left feeling anxious, depressed, tearful and irritable. We can experience a lack of motivation and concentration. There is often a loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed before the traumatic event. After a trauma, people often describe themselves as feeling 'cut-off' from the world and the people they love.
But what actually makes an event “traumatic"? That's hard to define. Traumatic experiences are often unavoidable and they don't necessarily stem from a major catastrophe. The fact is, minor mishaps can have a damaging and crippling effect on a person and most of us, at one time or another, consciously or unconsciously will have suffered some form of trauma.
Most people would understand that incidents such as bereavement, divorce, accidents, illness, assault, burglary, neglect and abuse are common forms of traumatic experiences. However, it is also the small things in life that we take for granted like exams, selling a house, navigating a difficult working relationship and even seemingly happy events such as births and Christmas that can stress us to the point of feeling overwhelmed and disconnected, resulting in trauma-like symptoms.
The important thing to know is that it is not the event that traumatises a person but how the person experiences the event that is traumatic and for each of us this will be different. Most of us will have a normal response to a traumatic event that will subside and heal in due course. For others there will be a more complicated process to recovery and wellbeing.
Anne Marie, a 38-year old mother of two, describes her experience: “I was an outgoing, fit, working professional who enjoyed life to the full. I had lots of friends and enjoyed a very active social life. I always had plans for the future.
Then something happened that knocked me sideways. The job I thought I was promised, went to someone else. I was devastated. Nothing major, just a little mishap, was how one friend described it. But to me it seemed like my world had fallen in on me. I became withdrawn and very down. I struggled to get out of bed in the mornings. I wouldn't go out. I didn't want to see friends and eventually my work began to suffer. I lost motivation and began to let myself go. I wouldn't wash or change for days. I wasn't eating or sleeping properly. I always felt panicky.
"My family were very supportive but eventually even they began to despair. Everyone around me was finding it difficult to know what to do. I would fly off the handle at the least thing and then break down into floods of tears for seemingly no reason. At times I thought I was going mad. Finally, I went to see a psychotherapist.
"Going to my first session was difficult. I didn't really buy into the idea of therapy and was very sceptical. My therapist was so understanding and reassuring. I felt very safe. For the first time in a long time I felt hopeful. Over time I slowly regained a new sense of myself, put a different perspective on what had happened and stopped the blame. After retraining I have a new career and feel happier and stronger. My trauma marked a turning point in my life. In a funny way it saved me."
Trauma happens in the mind and the body and can challenge us to our very core. But we must not forget the immeasurable accounts of bravery, kindness, hope and love that are often born out of traumatic experiences. In recovery we develop new relationships, with others and ourselves. Trauma does not have to be crippling; in fact, it can be enriching, strengthening and life changing.