If I asked you to give me some examples of traumatic events, what would you say? Typically, it’s massive life-changing experiences that spring to mind. Things like war, natural disaster, violent crime and road traffic accidents. If you’ve never experienced something so dramatic and devastating, you might think you’ve lived a life free of trauma. But what if I told you there’s more to trauma than awful events that become headline news? What if I told you we’ve all been through traumatic life experiences to varying degrees?
What is Trauma?
Trauma expert Gabor Maté says ‘trauma is not what happens to you, it's what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you’. In other words, trauma is linked to what happens in our body and mind when we experience a distressing event.
One thing we know about traumatic experiences is that sometimes the nervous system can become so overwhelmed while dealing with a stressful situation, the brain does not prioritise processing the event as it usually would. As a result, the event can become frozen in our body and mind, stuck the way it was originally formed along with the beliefs, feelings, physical sensations and images that were experienced at the time.
This is why I like to use the term ‘overwhelming’. While you may not have lived through an event typically viewed as trauma, you may have experienced something that was traumatic for your nervous system. In other words, an overwhelming, stressful situation can be experienced as ‘traumatic’ by the person involved.
Here’s a Useful Example...
Imagine a 9-year-old boy is asked to read aloud in front of the class. He becomes so nervous he starts to stutter and turn red. His peers notice and start laughing. This further intensifies the distressing experience for him.
Although he isn’t in any physical danger, there is a perceived danger around making a mistake in front of his peers and being embarrassed. This situation seems to threaten his reputation and social status. The trouble is our brains don’t understand the difference between actual danger and a perceived danger. Because the child detects a threat in his environment, his brain’s fight or flight response is activated to help him deal with the situation.
It's likely his nervous system would become incredibly overwhelmed. In fact, the level of anxiety may be so intense that his brain prioritises dealing with the situation rather than processing the experience in the way it normally would.
For this child, the memory of this event could become frozen in time in the exact form it was created. As he grows up, he might notice his nervous system starts to become activated when he’s in a classroom setting. His mind and body associate the classroom with a situation in the past that was perceived as dangerous. The brain can also get confused about what’s happened in the past and what’s happening now, leaving the boy feeling similar to how he felt at the time when that memory was created.
Eventually, this frozen memory could also be triggered by lots of things in his adult life. For example, in work situations such as presentations, meetings or being asked to deliver feedback to colleagues. For this person, the situation would feel very similar to being asked to read aloud to the class as a 9-year-old. His body could respond in exactly the same way it did back then, causing him to feel exactly the way he felt at the time the initial event happened, even years and years later.
Here are some examples of overwhelming experiences my clients have needed to discuss during therapy:
- A long history of being quite poorly as a child and needing to visit the GP a lot to be checked over.
- Being haunted by a friend’s facial expression when they were in a fight together.
- Being told they didn’t make head girl in sixth form.
From the outside, these experiences look and sound relatively harmless, but for whatever reason they were overwhelming enough to overload the individual’s nervous system. As a consequence, the brain’s natural processing ability went offline, leaving the experience unprocessed and in the exact form it was created – full of emotional intensity, strong physical sensations, sensory information and negative self-beliefs.
You’re Not Alone
I believe we have all been through traumatic, overwhelming life experiences to varying degrees. Some of us have only experienced a small number of these, but others have experienced traumatic life events over and over again.
We have only recently started to understand the impact of overwhelming life experiences on our mental health. I view myself as a trauma informed psychotherapist, meaning I look at things through a lens of what happened to you as opposed to what is wrong with you. In my opinion, it makes sense that if you’ve experienced overwhelming life events and situations, these can continue to have an impact on you long after they first occurred.
The good news is trauma is treatable and responds well to psychotherapies, particularly trauma focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, both of which I’m able to provide. If you’re interested in working with me, you can book a free consultation here. I also share lots of tips and advice via Instagram.