In my work as a Registered Psychotherapist who performs trauma treatment, one thing that I see often and that people do not give themselves enough credit for, is that everyone reacts differently to trauma.
If you read my previous blog post on the Containment exercise or worked with me in the past, you would have already heard my cup analogy. To refresh, I interpret the stressors of life much like a cup of water, where when stressors occur (including traumatic ones) it is like pouring some water into that cup, if we do nothing to take any water out it eventually overflows. I will admit that some people may feel like some people have a much larger cup than theirs; however, there are multiple variables that influence how MUCH water gets put into the cup.
And let’s be honest, is telling ourselves that someone has it worse off than us and we should be able to handle our problems, all that helpful, or going to make us feel any better? Not at all! In fact, I can almost guarantee opposite results — that it will make us feel worse.
Now that we are in the understanding that we are going to be a bit gentler on our personal expectations, I will tell you that just because someone appears as though they are “handling it” better does not always mean they are immune to challenges that can arise from experiencing traumatic events or from unhelpful coping.
What classifies something as traumatic is when we experience something that induces a nervous system reaction (fight, flight, freeze, or flop) and our bodies do not get the chance to fully ‘digest’ these events. If we fully digest all that happened, or process it, then it stores away like any other memory; however, if we do not, then our brains get ‘backed up.’ This causes other problems (just like if you physically could not digest things). The main problem this creates is our nervous system becomes dysregulated because now our system does not recognize this as something that has ended or is over and it stays “stuck” in it.
Trauma comes in different forms. And, people can have different timelines for their recovery from trauma and stress. For instance, someone may notice their strongest reaction immediately after a traumatic event, whereas someone else may not notice effects until 3 months, or years after. Despite the timeline, today I want to discuss what these common reactions look like for many people, because finding out how trauma shifts and changes you can be the first step to recovery.
1. Fear and Anxiety
Anxiety is a common reaction and a natural response we have to dangerous situations; however, for many, this lasts longer than when the dangerous situation or trauma has ended. Triggers or cues that are internal (e.g., you thinking or remembering) or external (e.g., time of day, smell, or places) can increase anxiety. Sometimes it may feel like out of the blue as sometimes we are not aware of things that are triggering or activating us. A part of our brain that is responsible for our healthy fight-flight-freeze/anxiety response can sometimes feel like a broken smoke alarm, going off when there is no fire/smoke. — Some awesome techniques for managing this at the moment can be found in a blog post included by my colleague Jessica Lankmann, titled “The Many Sides of Anxiety” and can be found here: https://www.limestone.clinic/post/the-many-sides-of-anxiety
2. Re-Experiencing the Trauma
It is common for people who have been traumatized to re-experience the traumatic event or parts of it. This can arise with unwanted thoughts, flashbacks, images, or nightmares. This kind of thing I like to explain to individuals is your brain bringing this stuff back repeatedly because it is not “done with it” and is trying to make sense of it. This tends to happen because traumatic experiences are so shocking and so different from day-to-day experiences that your brain cannot “fit” it into what we already know about the world. — A way to manage these as they arise has been included in my containment exercise blog post that can be found here: https://www.limestone.clinic/post/how-to-contain-your-emotions-for-now
3. Increased "Arousal" (not the good kind!)
First off, this is not something sexual in nature. What I mean by this is that this generally increases our flight-flight response- similar to that broken smoke alarm analogy. This may include feeling things like being jumpy or jittery, having episodes of trembling or shaking, being easily startled, or noticing that you are having more trouble concentrating or sleeping than before. When our nervous system is activated (increased arousal) and that fight-flight response is triggered, our bodies do a whole host of very sophisticated and complex shifts designed to help us survive, and a lot of these are triggered by adrenaline. This not only helps us get the energy we need to survive, but it also helps our bodies reduce risk of harm in case of injury. A practical example of this may be when we are watering our garden and notice a bear, so we run inside to keep ourselves safe. A maladaptive, or impractical way, our body may do this is when we are at the grocery store and suddenly get a panicky feeling, like we have to get out of there fast when nothing in the environment has changed. Unfortunately, once we experience traumatic events, our nervous system becomes dysregulated and sees the world as filled with danger; therefore, the body is on constant alert (also known as hypervigilant). This becomes the broken smoke alarm that goes off when there is no immediate danger.
This is something most people do in an attempt to manage trauma-related emotional pain. Most commonly, this is seen by individuals directly avoiding things that remind them of the trauma, such as the place where it happened. A way this may appear less directly would be by avoiding triggers or cues, such as not going out at night if the trauma occurred at night. Something I often do in practice and have to help people navigate is avoidance of thoughts and feelings. People do this to avoid discomfort; however, if we do this long-term, it can lead to emotional numbness (where it is hard to feel both the tough stuff and the good stuff). If the thoughts or feelings are so intense, your mind may actually block them out altogether and you may have difficulties remembering parts of the trauma.
5. Anger and Irritability
Anger arises in a few different ways. Some examples include feeling the world is not fair, negative self-talk, and long-term increased arousal (that we discussed above, which often appears to others as a fight response). This can usually feel scary in itself to people that do not “normally” act this way and can feel confusing.
6. Feelings of Guilt and Shame
Many people tend to blame themselves for things they did or did not do to survive. For example, feeling they should have fought off an assailant and blamed themselves for the attack or any other “should have, could have, would have”. Feeling ashamed has a tendency to arise when someone acted in ways they would not have otherwise. Taking responsibility for the trauma is usually people’s way of feeling like they had more control than they did or trying to make sense of what happened because, let’s be honest here, most trauma does not “make sense” in the traditional way we are used to.
7. Grief and Depression
This includes feeling down, sad, hopeless, or despairing. Individuals may notice they cry more often, may lose interest in spending time with people or doing activities they used to enjoy, and sometimes even feel like there is no worth in living any more. There is always an element of grieving from a trauma (loss of time, loss of part of the self, losing a loved one, etc.); however, this emotional pain can lead us to feel very low and where extra support can really come in handy. For more specifics on grief and loss, there is a blog post by the team that can be found here: https://www.limestone.clinic/post/decoding-loss-and-grief
8. Negative changes in Self-Image and Views of the World
Aspects of these areas often become more negative after a trauma. Some examples of these kinds of thoughts that I hear in practice are “if I had not been so weak, this would have never happened” or “I am a bad person and I deserve this”. A key component of this subject is trust; Where, after a trauma, trust becomes difficult. Believe me, these are worth challenging and can make a world of a difference. If you are experiencing this common reaction, it usually feels like you are a totally different person because of a traumatic event.
9. Sexual Relationships
I have seen this go one of two ways. Where this increases to avoid feelings, distract, and replace negative with positive (even for just a moment) or it decreases and can be difficult to engage in at all. This does not only occur with people who have experienced sexual traumas, as our libido is heavily tied to our mood and can be impacted, regardless of the “type” of trauma.
10. Increased use of Alcohol or Drugs
Use of these as coping strategies is not effective. In fact, it actually slows down your overall recovery. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with responsible use here; however, increasing the use of alcohol or drugs, while it may feel it eases things somewhat, short-term, can cause a problem of its own. Most individuals increase the use of various substances after trauma in attempts to avoid (numb themselves or distract from the feelings) or to try to “force a feel-good moment”. Understanding this connection more can be found in detail in an article by my colleague Karen James, here: https://www.limestone.clinic/post/aces-and-trauma-what-s-it-all-about
Many of the common reactions I listed are connected. For instance, having a flashback may increase your anxiety or fear and make you want to use alcohol or drugs. Over the years, I have heard multiple clients say that they feel these common reactions are them “going crazy” or “losing it”. This list is called “common reactions to trauma” for a reason! If you feel you have all the things on the list, it does not make you any “worse” than someone who may only resonate with one or two things. As you become aware of these reactions or challenges and process these experiences in your psychotherapy treatments, the activation and symptoms will generally become less and less distressing to you.
If this blog has resonated with you and you feel maybe, it’s time to work on some of these things, I would highly encourage you to reach out to our clinic of experts to help guide you out of the distress and to reclaim what trauma took away.