The symptoms of trauma often are mistaken for other disorders. Below is some basic information for trauma survivors and a practical list of things you can do after the trauma.
Trauma affects the nervous system at deep, pre-conscious levels. Traumatic memories are not stored in a place where thought and talk-based mechanisms are managed in the human brain. Trauma seems to be processed mainly by the instinctual part of the brain — the part that makes you yell and jump a foot into the air when something startles you — and it also seems to take up long-term residence there.
The instinctual brain is a sort of pre-conscious data management and control network. It is responsible, among other things, for basic sensory integration.
Think of an advanced robot with lots of sensors and wiring for detecting sound, motion, light, temperature, and balance. Now imagine that robot has been exposed to something highly damaging, such as a fire. Its high-level central computer might still work, but its autonomic systems for gathering and interpreting data about the world now malfunction. It frequently interprets and reports incoming data to be extremely threatening, even when there is no danger at hand.
The human sensory integration mechanism takes a severe hit from trauma and chronic, high-level stress. The impact of cumulative stress is less immediate but eventually similar to trauma in its brain responses. Survivors consume far more energy coping with unusual or uncomfortable sensory experiences than previously. If they are severely traumatized, they may react in unpredictable ways.
After trauma, one of the most common responses is a lingering sense that things are out of control, accompanied by a deep longing to reassert control. This is a predictable response from a nervous system that once correctly perceived that danger was imminent and things were out of control. But now it is reporting constant alarms, mostly false.
As the key monitor, interpreter, and coordinator of the body’s systems for communication with the external world, the nervous system of a traumatized person frequently misreads the data coming from the senses. Any unexpected or unusual inputs are likely to trigger emergency responses to threat, which most of the time doesn’t exist in the current reality.
It’s hard to live and maintain routines when inner alarm bells keep going off. An ordinary day can be full of them. Tiredness and chronic fatigue are a common result. So are depression, hyperactivity, and deep anxiety.
Therapists who are not well-informed about trauma can miss it as a root cause and misdiagnose it as other disorders.
I am a trauma survivor myself. As a young adult I spent almost 10 years in therapy with two different therapists, in which time the word trauma was not once mentioned. I often left the therapy room emotionally flooded, feeling like this terrible time would never end.
Life brings difficult experiences to everyone, so of course I had plenty of things to work on in therapy. But today I know that the core of my struggle was not the psychodynamics of childhood I was discussing with my therapists, but the unrecognized and untreated traumatic experiences that I carried all those years.
Several years later, I moved to another country and saw a therapist. Even though he was not a trauma therapist, he began to refer to my past experiences as traumatic.
This marked the beginning of a shift for me, toward what I now call trauma integration. Trauma integration takes place when the traumatic experience is no longer at the center of experience and is acknowledged to be a part of one’s whole narrative, while recognizing the existing resources involved in surviving the traumatic event.
For the first time in my life, I was able to make sense of inner responses that had puzzled and troubled me for many years. I was able to let go of many “would/should/could” thoughts that had occupied me for a long time.
This time marked a turn in my career as well. I was energized at the thought of using my experiences to help other survivors out of the frozen stagnation of old trauma and I took steps to pursue this interest. Looking back now, I see that the turning point for me was not actually therapy. Even though it happened with the assistance of a therapist, it was psychoeducation. I acquired knowledge and understanding about trauma and its impact that was transformative for me.
This experience and the research and study I have done since then convince me that providing correct and precise information to people — both trauma survivors and people from communities exposed to trauma and prone to reoccurrences — is one of the most useful and cost-effective things that can be done as a response to the reality of trauma.
In my next post I will describe essential reminders and suggest a to-do list for trauma survivors.
Trauma photo available from Shutterstock