Trauma. . . it’s not what you think it is

imagesFor many people, when they hear the word trauma, they automatically have things that come to mind:  a scene from their favorite war movie, a violent assault, being a refuge, child abuse, etc.  But trauma can be so much more and a lot less. Trauma can be repeated illnesses or surgeries.  It can be repeated exposure to other people’s trauma (known as secondary traumatization or compassion fatigue).  It can be a car accident, witnessing an accident or abuse.

Regardless of what it is, it seems to me, from the reading I have done thus far that trauma is trauma when it is unresolved and the body and/or psyche have not been able to process it.  For Peter Levine, trauma is a biological event and therefore must be dealt with on a biological level.

It stands to reason that a person can have compounded trauma that they might not even realize is all affecting their health.  What if a person has had several car accidents over a number of years, has an extremely stressful job, no support system, and over times, stops the very things he/she did to combat stress because of being so stressed out.  Pile on top of that loneliness (a known killer and also know to diminish the functioning of the immune systems), not eating well, sleep disturbance, and well it’s enough to create a strong brew of discontent, ill health, and chronic pain or illness.  It doesn’t take much to pile up and tear apart one’s health on all levels.  If this were to go on for years, it would be no wonder that a person would end up traumatized.

You can add in any number of other problems. . . depression, substance abuse, over spending, too many bills, emotional abuse, no spiritual community, etc and you can see how a person’s world can come crumbling down.  If things don’t change, the person’s very body will.  It will start to not only show signs of stress such as high blood pressure, GI disturbance, sleep problems but it may also start to show signs such as hair loss, gaining or losing weight, pain, cold hands and feet, etc.  Muscle tension is easy to kick in and the body becomes armored and tries to protect itself.

It’s also important to remember that one set of stressors might not be enough to tip a person into acute stress or trauma.  For instance, I knew a woman to have 3 losses in a very short amount of time. . . her sister, her father, and her uncle all died within a year and a half or two years.  This didn’t seem to phase her as it would other people.  She was a doctor and was Catholic.  From a medical point of view, she believed that there was nothing more that could be done for them and that their illnesses had ravaged them.  From a spiritual point of view, she believed that her sister and father were with her mother and one brother and that gave her great comfort; believing that these family members were united in their afterlife.  She also still had many siblings and several children of her own and a loving husband.  What was more stressful was being disrespected at work and working long hours in an unrelenting hospital atmosphere.  Still, with having sleep problems due to working on shifts and her sleep and work stress aggravating her diabetes, this doctor did not suffer trauma at the hands of such loss and stress.  Two reasons she felt that she could cope with everything going on around her was because she believed she was supported by God and her faith and she was able to get away and play.  She made sure that several times a year she was able to disconnect and be with family, laugh and play, and discharge all of the negative stressors in her life.

Another friend, an artist, was stuck in a dead end job that she hated.  She had grown up in an emotionally abusive family with no support from older siblings that had moved away before she was very old.  Her skills were underutilized and every day felt like a drain on her soul.  Over the years, friends had moved away and she had stopped allowing new people to get close to her, keeping everyone at a safe distance.  Although she was in a committed relationship, she kept him at bay as well.  In addition to her job being unfulfilling, it didn’t pay the bills and she was forced to work multiple odd jobs to keep up with the house taxes and keep food on the table.  There were no mentors in her life, no best supportive friends, and she had learned that everything had to be done the hard way, with no help, lest you were considered weak.

Then a series of things happened that might not be stressful in your life or mine but altogether were traumatic for this person.  She had gotten severely sick and had to take a significant amount of time off of work.  As she was starting to get better, her cat got very sick and she took time off to spend time with her dying cat, her one tried and true friend.  While gardening and keeping food on her table, she contracted lyme’s disease.  Her cat died then died.  A deep depression set in and she shut herself off from everyone and everything.  She lost her job because of all the time off she took and had no resources.  It was easier to smoke and drink than it was to reach out to anyone.  With time, she started to not only shut out the people around her but actually hate everyone and she sunk deeper into her depression.  With such a depleted body due to illness and a non-existent support system, the loss of her one pet pushed her over the edge and added to the trauma of a series of wounds never addressed.

Both women experienced losses in about the same time frame and yet both had very different experiences and coped differently.  One had her faith and her family to support her and although she was older and had some health difficulties, she had the means to get away, the ability to step outside of her life, and have some reprieve.  The other woman had no way out and had the ghosts of an abusive, embarrassing family to deal with.  She had settled for jobs that paid the bills, not jobs that inspired her or used her talents and she saw the world as a rotten place.  It is easy to see how she could suffer from long term trauma, especially if at the different points in her journey (each loss or illness or injustice) she did not seek out help.  And much to her detriment, what she did seek out to help her cope made her depression and grief worse.

As you can see, two people can experience similar situations and one can remain unchanged or at least less harmed.  And one can have their world spiral out of control.  So when you think of trauma, don’t just think of a combat vet returning home or a refuge seeking asylum from a war-torn country.  A doctor or paramedic can be exposed to traumatic events every day at work.  A therapist or minister can experience compassion fatigue from tending to 100s of hurting clients.  A widow can live with an abusive husband for decades and then be the one to take care of him during cancer treatment and his subsequent death.   What they all have in common is that these events are unreconciled and if not dealt with will often effect multiple layers of their lives.

Here are your questions regarding trauma:

  • Do you work in a high stress job, taking care of others or dealing with their illness, trauma, or grief?
  • Do you have a strong support system?
  • Do you keep a journal or go to counseling?
  • Do you eat well and nourish yourself by getting enough sleep, hydration, and laughter?
  • Do you find ways to disconnect from the world?
  • Do you have people to go to when you need to talk?
  • Do you exercise, do yoga, meditate, get massages, acupuncture, etc that helps work stress and disease out of your body?
  • Do you practice gratitude, keep a gratitude journal or do meditations on gratitude and thanksgiving?
  • Do you live with or deal with people with emotional problems, addiction, mental health issues, or other kinds of abuse?
  • Do you have a strong spiritual center, connection to a higher power, have a strong faith in something or someone?





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