Trauma is a word that is used in so many ways. So what do we mean by trauma when we are using it in relation to mental health? Trauma can be thought of as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience or a physical injury. These traumas can be one big one such as an accident, assault or a natural disaster. However, they can also be a series of what we may class as much less significant events such as emotional abuse, bullying, harassment or the loss of significant relationships. The issue comes when we are unable to process the event and as a direct result, this leaves the memory stored in a way that means we can be triggered in the present by an event that happened in the past.
Under normal circumstances, our memories are stored together by association. If we want to retrieve these memories, we are easily able to do so. They are nicely filed, we can reflect on them and if we receive new information about them, we can amend/adjust these memories. When we experience trauma, quite often, we are not able to file the memory of these incidents as we do other memories. These memories can be triggered by current events, flooding us with the emotional response we had in the original trauma. For example, someone who has had a car accident may find that even the thought of getting in a car is overwhelming and creates panic even though there is no current danger. Or someone who has been attacked in a park may find that their fight/flight response is triggered by the thought of going to a park again. Essentially, it brings the full range of emotional and bodily response from the traumatic event into the present, even though the danger from the past is no longer present. This impacts our ability to live our life in the way that we want to.
The important part of what is happening above is that we are not in control of our response to the trauma. Our mind brings up the traumatic memory that hasn’t been filed properly and the body responds to this as if the threat is imminent again. The problem is these incorrectly filed memories are often filled with other pieces of information that could be triggering for us. In the example of being attacked, we may have lots of things associated with this attack such as the park, a tall man with dark hair, the aftershave he wore, if there was music playing in the background or the colour of the jacket he was wearing. Any of these things can then trigger the traumatic memory and we may have no idea why as we don’t consciously associate the aftershave with the attack.
Trauma impacts us all differently. One thing that I speak to clients about regularly is that they do not have to have had a big T trauma (sexual abuse, assault, natural disaster etc) to be traumatised. The childhood events that they have normalised such as humiliation or insulting parenting styles, when repeated, can be incredibly damaging to our emotional and physical wellbeing. Working with a trauma informed therapist to process past traumas can help you achieve a greater sense of wellbeing in the present.