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How Does Trauma Affect People?

"Trauma" is a broad concept that can be applied to any negative experience that has a lasting effect on someone. But what are those effects, exactly? And how does therapy help someone address them?

The Impact of Trauma

In the context of therapy, "trauma" refers to experiences in which a person feels an intense sense of fear or distress, which activates the body's threat response. This means the nervous system reacts as if the person is in physical danger--whether or not there is an actual physical threat. Under normal circumstances, this kind of reaction may be unpleasant or feel excessive, but it doesn't produce a long-lasting effect on the person; once they stop feeling threatened, their nervous system goes back to its "resting" state and they calm down, physically and mentally.

But in the case of trauma, this experience has a profound and long-lasting impact on the person. Once their nervous system has entered that "threatened" state, it may be difficult for them to entirely "calm down", and they may be "edgy" and nervous most of the time. Or, certain "triggers" may cause them to enter that "threatened" state very quickly, even if there is no obvious threat. Triggers can be anything that reminds a person of a traumatic event, such as a sound, a smell, or even a memory.

These effects can stay with a person for years--perhaps even the rest of their life, if they're not effectively treated. For more information about the effects trauma has on the body, please click here.

The Many Masks of Trauma

Trauma is a difficult thing for anyone to experience, but one of the things that makes it difficult is that it isn't always obvious that trauma is the problem--even to the person experiencing it. Trauma can manifest as many different things, including anger, sadness, recklessness, substance use, memory problems, or relationship problems. How can we tell when trauma is at the root of these things?

The nature of trauma is to create strong, uncontrollable emotional reactions that may feel like they come from the body more than the mind. For instance, a person may suddenly become extremely angry, or frightened, without knowing why. They may find themselves nauseated or dizzy, or experience dissociation, in which they feel disconnected from their body or their surroundings. They may experience hypervigilance, in which they feel the need to constantly monitor their surroundings and be on the lookout for anything dangerous. All of these are signs that trauma may be underneath whatever problems they're seeing on the surface.

One important thing to remember is that a person doesn't need to be able to remember the traumatic event itself to be affected by it. The evidence of trauma isn't in what the person remembers--it's in how their body reacts to threats. If they have an extreme, uncontrollable reaction to things that put their nervous system into "threat mode", it's possible that's the result of trauma.

How Healing Happens

Many people who come to therapy for help with trauma are reluctant to talk about their traumatic experiences. Discussing these things can be painful, and even cause further trauma. The good news is, discussing the actual events of the trauma isn't necessary for healing to take place (though some people do find it helpful to talk about what happened to them, in which case therapy is an excellent place to do that).

Because the effects of trauma impact the body and nervous system, healing from trauma can take place by working with the body and helping it learn to react more moderately, whether the events of the trauma are discussed or not. The key is having ways to reduce the intensity of the body's threat response, without having to avoid or "numb" it (such as with drugs or alcohol).

The most fundamental component of a traumatic reaction is the nervous system telling the body "we are in danger". So, to reduce that, we need to help the body re-learn what it feels like to be "safe", by finding ways to soothe it and generate feelings of security and calm. This may not eliminate the strong emotional reaction altogether, at least not at first, but if that reaction can be managed enough to make it controllable, then the person can reduce the impact that the trauma has on their daily life.

Finding What Soothes

"What makes you feel safe?" is a question that everyone would answer differently. Each person has their own personal set of things that produce good feelings in them, some of which they may already be using to self-soothe without even realizing it. Some people may not be able to identify a single thing that makes them feel "safe"--but that may be because they just haven't found what works for them yet.

Here's a few suggestions for things that some people find soothing:

  • Scents, such as flowers, herbs, or spices. Smell is a powerful sense that can produce strong physical reactions in us, so a smell that we associate with a safe place or positive experience can be quite potent in reducing our distress.

  • Textures such as softness, fuzziness, smoothness, or squishyness.

  • Sounds such as rain falling, waves crashing, or white noise.

  • Music.

  • Breathing exercises. Deep, slow breaths are one of the most fundamental aspects of a "calm" physical and mental state (which is why "breathe" is the first piece of advice given to anyone feeling upset).

  • Physical activity or exercise. Yoga is particularly useful for some people because it combines physical exertion with controlled, deep breathing. Walking is also useful for this reason.

  • Meditation and mindfulness.

  • Creative activities such as knitting, drawing, or colouring.

  • Calming environments such as being in nature or in a "safe space" like a bedroom.

  • Significant objects. These can be anything that has a positive association for a person; frequently, people use stuffed animals, religious items, or souvenirs from particularly positive experiences.

Once a person has identified what soothes them and helps them feel safe, they can practice using these things to calm themselves whenever they feel the strong emotional reactions from their trauma coming up for them. With time and repetition, they can reduce the intensity of those reactions to the point where they no longer dominate the person's ability to make decisions. Instead of the trauma making them feel "out of control", they once again have control over their reaction--and being in control is another thing that often helps people feel a sense of "safety".

In some cases, the trauma reaction comes on so quickly and so strongly that a person doesn't feel able to think about using a soothing technique, which can make it hard to feel a sense of control. In these cases, the person could try using the soothing techniques as soon as that sense of control starts to return (which it always will, since the trauma reaction can't last forever). This can help reduce the amount of time they spend in that out-of-control state, which can also help them feel more secure and in control.

Help Is There

Many people who experience trauma feel alone, and may believe that no one has ever been through what they've been through, and therefore no one could ever understand. The truth is, no matter what a person has experienced, healing is possible. Help is available, for those who want it, and no one has to go through this alone.

If you'd like to discuss how you can get help, please contact me at I'm happy to talk to you about whatever you're needing support with.

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