You might have heard more about 'trauma' than in generations past. Do you ever wonder whether overcoming past trauma is possible - or whether your trauma is real?
Doesn't everyone have a bit of trauma? (Or is it really just me?)
There's an old Monty Python sketch of some men sitting down to have a yarn about the hard ol' days. As they go around the circle, they each share how difficult their childhood was.
- In them days we was glad to have a cup o' tea
- A cup o' cold tea.
- Without tea.
- In a cracked cup, an' all.
- Oh, we never had a cup. We used to have to drink out of a rolled up newspaper.
And on the stories roll - each outdoing the last with the absurdness of their claims in how horrible their childhood was:
- Well, of course, we had it tough. We used to 'ave to get up out of shoebox at twelve o'clock at night and lick the road clean with our tongue. We had two bits of cold gravel, worked twenty-four hours a day at the mill for sixpence every four years, and when we got home our Dad would slice us in two with a bread knife.
Yet for all the dryness of British humour, trauma was undeniably a mark on the world of the last century. From world wars to the plethora of things that go wrong when you're at your most vulnerable, you're 'lucky' if you get through early life without a dose of it.
Common questions we hear are: is overcoming past trauma possible? Or how do I overcome past relationship trauma?
You're definitely not alone if you need a helping hand to guide you in processing your past - no matter how long ago it may have been.
Is it a competition?
One of the trickiest parts of thinking about your own trauma is how we feel in relation to other people.
Perhaps you've felt that your terrible experience is not "officially trauma" because it's not as objectively bad as something your mate went through, or that you saw on the news.
There are definitive diagnoses such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Complex PTSD (c-PTSD) and Acute Stress Disorder for those who've been through a traumatic event, or series of complex experiences, and whose functioning is severely impaired.
But two people could go through a near-identical situation, where one seems to get out 'scot-free', yet the other has debilitating symptoms for decades.
Somewhere along the way, you might have had unwanted (and perhaps uninformed) opinions brushing you off with comments from 'Oh well doesn't everyone suffer?' - to 'ah it's not that bad'.
Fortunately, it's not about others' opinions. Indeed, what matters is your own experience.
Who's keeping score anyway?
Well, the body for one. In his book The Body Keeps the Score, psychiatrist and trauma researcher Van der Kolk proposes that traumatic experiences can have a profound impact on the body, causing changes in the brain, nervous system, and physical health.
Trauma can cause the body to get stuck in a state of 'hypervigilance' where the nervous system is constantly on high alert, and the body is flooded with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This can lead to a range of physical symptoms, such as chronic pain, fatigue, and digestive problems.
It can affect the brain's ability to regulate emotions, leading to difficulties with emotional regulation and interpersonal relationships. Additionally, traumatic experiences can alter the brain's structure and function, particularly in regions associated with memory, emotion, and stress response.
Adverse Childhood Experiences
If I can't really remember it happening, or someone's told me I was being dramatic - well it can't have been that bad, right?
Broad-scale research in the USA has studied the effects of "Adverse Childhood Experiences" (ACEs) and found that they often have a huge impact on later life.
These traumatic experiences, or 'ACEs' can include experiences such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect, household dysfunction (e.g., substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, divorce), and other forms of family stress.
The study of ACEs began in the 1990s when a group of researchers conducted a study to explore the relationship between childhood trauma and health outcomes later in life.
The ACEs Study surveyed more than 17,000 adults and found a strong link between Adverse Childhood Experiences and a range of negative health outcomes, including chronic diseases, mental illness, substance abuse, and early mortality.
Are we starting to do a little better as a society?
Rather than sweeping it under the rug and hoping it'll just go away, there is a growing awareness that trauma is not always obvious from the outside, and we can do better for vulnerable citizens.
Even if that means addressing the wrongs that someone endured as a child half a century ago.
In recent years, there has been a shift towards trauma-informed approaches in various fields, including healthcare, education, social services, and criminal justice.
Multiple royal commissions in Australia in recent years have brought to light many injustices that were suffered. Perhaps worse still, that victims were not believed or listened to.
In therapy, there has been increased attention to evidence-based treatments for trauma, such as trauma-focused cognitive-behavioural therapy, shown to be effective in reducing symptoms and improving quality of life.
What's done is done - we can't change the past, can we?
It's important to mention here that if you're working with a qualified therapist, respect and confidentiality are central elements. No one will push you to talk about things you don't want to, or just aren't ready to talk about.
But if you've reached a place of wanting to move forward in your life, then sometimes going back to the past is what can help.
In a wide scale 'study of studies' (or meta-analysis) on psychotherapy, researchers found that talking therapy had benefits that went beyond clients feeling better - they literally found positive physical changes in the connectivity of their brains!
I'd rather leave some memories buried
If you feel any number of uncomfortable emotions - fear, embarrassment, shame - at the thought of bringing up old painful memories, know that you are not alone.
People who've experienced trauma may feel a sense of shame, guilt, or self-blame, and may try to bury or suppress memories as a way of coping with these difficult emotions.
By pushing memories away or avoiding triggers, someone may feel like they are protecting themselves from further harm and avoiding the pain associated with reliving traumatic experiences.
Signs you might be needing some extra help
Is it a sign of weakness to suppress our reactions and memories? In short, no.
In fact, it's literally a survival tool.
To avoid re-experiencing that pain, the body or mind can experience numbness - or it can actively chase after numbness in the form of some of the most well-known culprits such as alcohol and other substances.
The thing is, burying or suppressing memories can also have negative consequences. Without addressing the underlying trauma, it's fairly common to continue to experience symptoms such as anxiety, depression, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts.
If you're ready, help is at hand
If you think you might have experienced trauma, one of the first hurdles can be admitting it - and that you no longer want to carry the burden alone.
You can give yourself permission to seek support and treatment to address your underlying trauma and work towards healing and recovery.
If you are wanting to organise a session with a psychologist, please reach out to us. We'll be there to guide you through.