What Is Trauma?

Today I’m switching up the format a bit. I’ve been doing lists and tips for the past few days because I feel the information has been important and also relevant to many of our lives (if this is an inaccurate perception, please let me know in the comments below). But today has a different vibe to it.

For the longest time, I believed trauma could only exist in the form of a sudden, violent, physical instance, like a car accident or molestation/rape or physical child abuse. It wasn’t until I was 21 did I learn consistently being told to shut up, to not speak, was a form of trauma. It wasn’t until I was 21 did I learn the three years I spent homeless during my childhood was a trauma. I also didn’t know that growing up with an alcoholic and an addict was a very specific type of trauma.

So what exactly IS trauma?

Trauma Is:

Any kind of repeated emotional, verbal, or physical abuse/manipulation that has caused lasting effects. This could range from something seemingly simple like your mother nudging you to lose weight and consistently commenting on what you eat, how much you eat, and what kind of clothes you wear, to your father threatening to kill you if you told the teacher he gave you a black eye.

The thing about trauma is that it doesn’t effect any two people the same way. Not every person who has experienced sexual abuse becomes a drug addict. Not every person who was verbally accosted spends a lifetime struggling with their self-worth. Not every person who was physically abused grows up to be physically abusive.

Many people develop their own ways to process (or not process) their trauma. Some people want to pretend it never happened, and there are times where that helps them move on. We hear a lot that everyone should process their feelings, but as a grief study in Europe showed, sometimes people move on easier and still in a healthy way by just getting back to life rather than diving deep into their feelings. (I will put proper citation for that study when I can find a full copy; I learned of it through my previous professor).

Some people relive the events everyday and it cripples them. It invades their relationships, their school, their work, their own sense of peace.

Some people, like me, don’t really recognize where the trauma has effected their life or how. I think I talked a little about the trauma around my learning to speak for myself in this post, On Mental Health and Freedom.

Some people are in the middle and can function well, but are haunted from time to time with flashbacks or residual effects of their trauma.

Where Is Trauma Located?

Maybe that sounds weird.

What I mean is, where do you feel the trauma?

Often with mental health, we’re told “it’s just in your head”, and with trauma that’s not always the case. As a hypothesis, trauma can also be felt in your body as physical memories. Now, I don’t have a research paper sitting in front of me to back me up with this, all I have is my personal experience of certain physical attributes presenting when preparing certain memories for EMDR therapy.

When I find a paper that has studied this with a proper research method, I will update everyone.

But, if you have experienced trauma, you may get what I’m talking about. You feel certain things in your body. You may feel yourself separating from your body as the result of a specific memory–we call this dissociation. There may be certain words or attitudes or body language from someone else that may activate a tightening in your stomach or nausea or hot flashes with seemingly no explanation.

For me, one of these things is the “inner child”. The last therapist who asked me to talk to my inner child pulled some kind of deep seeded darkness into the light and whenever someone says the words or I think about it, I break down crying. I’m not sad, it’s just my body’s response. I’ll get warm and my chest will tighten and I have no full explanation for it.

So, it’s not “all in your head”, from my personal experience.

We talked a bit about this at a Hearing Voices Network workshop a couple years ago. We talked about how trauma can cause our mind to separate from our body and how that relates to and can be a catalyst for psychosis.

What this means is that, in approaching trauma, we must consider the whole body experience. We must consider reconnecting the mind with the body and this is often done with grounding techniques, similar to those used for anxiety and panic attacks: reminding yourself you are safe, feeling your feet on the ground, pinpointing areas of your body and focusing on them, or pinpointing objects in the room and saying them out loud.

Is EMDR A Proven Therapy?

NO. You’d be surprised to find that mindfulness isn’t either.

For those who don’t know, EMDR (Eye Movement and Desensitization Reprocessing) is a type of specific trauma therapy in which a traumatized patient is guided by someone trained with specific skills in asking particular questions about a traumatic memory (some of which can feel like CBT therapy) while they move a wand back and forth or flash moving lights. The hypothesis here is that eye movement helps your brain process the memory as a whole.

What I will say, for EMDR, is that studies have shown it works for the majority of people. The problem with the majority of the studies is that they often don’t separate the actual therapeutic content (the therapist leading you, asking questions, guiding you to feel your feelings) from the little lights and wand and all that.

So, in order for a valid study to prove that this therapy works, it would need to be compared with CBT with no lights/wand, Lights/wand with no CBT, the full EMDR package of lights/wand, and guiding CBT questions, and of course a control group of no treatment. Haven’t yet read a study like that. (If you know of one, please send it to me or put it down below in the comments! Please link the FULL research article or at the very least the abstract, not a secondary source).

EMDR is very popular. But so is Debriefing Therapy done after a serious natural disaster/crisis and studies have shown that actually makes people worse.

So POPULAR does not equal PROVEN.

What I will say from my current EMDR experience, is that it’s brought up a lot of pain but it also helped me process an incident at work very quickly. And had I not done that, I think the incident would have stuck with me in a different way. A hindering way.

What is Dissociation Like?

Dissociation can become a way of life for those traumatized, and it can also be a savior. It can pull you through tough moments. I’ve been dissociating regularly, and heavily, since I was 14 and I can say the first few years it bothered me. It bothered me mostly because I wasn’t so aware of it happening until I was told I walked into four lanes of traffic and 3 miles home without responding to anyone.

A lot of the time it feels like you, your essence, is somewhere far away and your body is stuck down here in muddy waters. Other forms of dissociation make you feel like your body isn’t real or that none of the earthly objects around you are real. This can be terrifying for a lot of people, and upsetting.

I’ve been experimenting with turning my dissociation into a profit. Not a monetary profit, but a mental profit. Dissociating has helped me learn to share power with my voices and given me a space I can retreat safely when needed.

Am I Traumatized?

Are you? I don’t know. If you experience some of the aforementioned things, perhaps. I’m not going to tell you what you are and what you aren’t, though. If you feel that there are things in the past that hinder your daily activities today or effect your mood or how you interact with people, it may be worth finding someone to talk to about it.

It took me years to realize that the reason I struggled interacting with people wasn’t because I was strange, weird, or a freak, but because I’d been taught my words were invalid, my thoughts were useless, and I didn’t have any right to speak. That mentality has continued to follow me into my adulthood, and it’s only been in the past year I’ve been able to rationally confront it.

So, as terrifying as facing pain can be, if it’s something you feel you need to get off your chest, if it’s something that’s been keeping you from living the life you want to live, it may be worth working toward gaining a new perspective and reaching out for guidance.

I don’t think I’ll want to talk about all my trauma for all of my life. I’d get tired of being weary over it. But a couple sessions of half-ass studied EMDR won’t hurt.

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