Two people who experience a similar traumatic event, such as robbery at gunpoint, will each have experiences that are poles apart. One will integrate the event into their life, consider it done and dusted, and move on. The other will have bouts of extreme fear and rage, and will still be struggling with the trauma many years later.
As you can see from the above, we will all react differently to traumatic events. Just like we all have varying thresholds for pain, so too will our reactions to trauma be different to everybody else’s.
Researchers have been hard at work over the last couple of decades, decoding the mysteries of how different people react to trauma. The biggest influencer has been shown to come down to the perception of the event.
Perception is influenced by many variables, including age, level of support, and physical characteristics. Emotional trauma can be brought about by a single deeply felt event or develop over a series of events that are of lower intensity.
Examples of less traumatic events include falls, betrayals, difficult births, surgery, and dental procedures. All these seemingly minor events can build on each other and evolve into the same lingering trauma triggered by more extreme events such as combat, serious accidents, or physical abuse.
Luckily, it is possible to resolve trauma, even if you have harbored it for years. People can benefit from a new perspective that does not forget past traumas but also does not let them dominate their daily life.
Peter Levine wrote in Waking the Tiger: Healing the Trauma. “The same immense energies that create the symptoms of trauma, when properly engaged and mobilized, can transform the trauma and propel us into new heights of healing, mastery, and even wisdom.”
The Natural Response to Trauma
According to Levine and others in the field, trauma will not heal when the natural trauma response is interrupted, and feelings that are unleashed by the traumatic event are left unresolved. It’s for this reason that emotions like anger, guilt, hopelessness, shame, self-blame, depression, and anger can build up inside.
The body’s response to trauma does not limit itself to the emotional, but can also create physical changes as well. Studies are now revealing that brain physiology is altered during a traumatic event to the degree that they are visible on brain scans.
What defines a natural trauma response? It’s a complete spectrum of emotional and physical sensations that start as soon as a person senses that something is wrong, or a situation has become dangerous. Levine goes on to suggest that we can learn a lot by studying animals and their responses to dangerous situations, both real ones or ones purely based on perception.
Once an animal has instinctively chosen a fight, flee, or freeze response and the danger has since passed, the animal goes through a phase where they show visible signs of trembling and twitching. It’s a clear indication that the body is releasing the tension created by the need for a quick response.
Humans share similar responses to danger, whether they are real or perceived. People will sweat, cry, shake, shiver, shudder, and even laugh after a traumatic experience. Just like in the animal kingdom, the responses are nature’s way of restoring the body to a state of equilibrium and are a vital part of the recovery process. Sometimes, the reactions can go on for days, weeks, or months.
People will often not allow themselves to suffer through these post-traumatic emotional and physical responses. In short, they interrupt the natural order of things. When people don’t let their bodies shed the negative energies brought on by a traumatic experience, they block their ability to heal.
Levine notes, “The animal’s ability to rebound from threat can serve as a model for humans. It gives us a direction that may point the way to our own innate healing abilities.”
Healing from Trauma
Many people are surprised to learn that underneath the layers of a supposedly peaceful suburban life, there lies a surprising prevalence for traumatic events to occur. Kaiser Permanente and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released the results of a 20-year study. The study revealed that, out of 17,337 middle-class participants, a hard-to-believe 64% of them had been through one or more traumatic childhood events.
Further to that, there were significant links found between childhood traumas and disease, suicide, drug use, and depression. Unresolved trauma can impair human functioning, leading to challenges with trust, intimacy and self-worth. It is common for victims of trauma to view the world as unsafe as well as having the sense that they have little control over their own lives.
If you’ve been traumatized, do your best to only focus on what you can do today, and pay attention to your reactions, thoughts, and feelings. Counseling can help you heal the past more quickly and thoroughly, so don’t hesitate to seek the help of a mental health professional.
There are safe, effective treatment options available so that you can put the trauma behind you and move forward. If you would like to learn more about healing, read more here: Trauma Treatment