How many people around you at any given time have an experience of trauma in their past? The numbers are staggering:
- 1 out of every 4 women has been sexually abused.
- 1 out of every 5 people, male or female, has been molested.
- 1 out of 3 couples has had physical violence in their relationship.
- 1 out of 4 children has been physically abused in a way that left marks.
The statistics are one thing, the stories are another. Each one of those numbers represents the suffering of an individual. The heartache of abuse and trauma has lasting impacts for years and decades.
But, there is hope. This isn’t the end of the story. There is healing, both for your pain and the suffering of other people around you. We aren’t interested in trite answers; we want to know where God is in our suffering. How do we ask and answer these questions as believers, and in the Christian counseling setting?
God created us with brains that can rewire based on our experiences and efforts. This means that not only can we experience mental and emotional trauma and post-traumatic stress, but we can also survive terrible experiences, and we can heal and rebuild after trauma.
Anything we do or experience regularly creates a synaptic response within our brains. These synapses are hour our brain communicates among its cells. The more often a particular synaptic link is used, the more quickly your mind follows that pattern the next time.
These patterns can be in the form of actions, thoughts, and sensations. For example, when you see candy, you may immediately reach for it and eat it. Your brain is conditioned or “wired” to want to eat candy because your past experiences have taught your brain that candy = good.
These responses don’t just exist in your brain; they become externalized, whether through sensation or action. When you wake up in the morning, you immediately make a cup of coffee and drink it. When you wake up tomorrow morning, you think of the aroma of coffee and crave a mug. You do this over and over again until your brain associates morning with coffee.
So what if you want to quit caffeine because you’re feeling anxious and jittery? It’s not going to be easy. That’s because your brain now associates coffee with a pleasant morning ritual that will be difficult to break.
Think about this type of association concerning trauma. Traumatic experiences are so compelling that they can create significant, lasting responses in the brain, even if the wound is not repeated.
Physical Responses to Trauma
As experts have studied cognitive responses to trauma, they’ve taken note of several natural responses people tend to have. The following examples are some of the most common. If any of them ring true for you, keep reading to find out more about the treatment options available to you in trauma based therapy.
Sometimes, an event is so overwhelming and terrible that our brain triggers a defense mechanism called dissociation. When you dissociate, you “check out” from your circumstances because you can’t cope with them. You become, in a way, unconscious of what is going on around you.
Dissociation is not necessarily negative. It can provide a bubble of protection during a traumatic experience. It becomes problematic when you continue to dissociate even after the trauma has ended. Once your brain gets in the habit of checking out, you might start to mentally skip parts of your day or experience amnesia about experiences in your past.
Or, you might experience problems when you start a new relationship or are triggered in some other way. Sometimes, people who dissociate aren’t even aware of past trauma, but it can be uncovered and processed over time.
If you’re experiencing ongoing dissociative symptoms, know that there are treatment options to help you move past this completely normal, but confusing and perhaps distressing response and into a healthier way of experiencing everyday life.
Imagine that you are a child, and there is domestic violence going on in your home. Maybe you don’t have to imagine it; perhaps you actually experienced it. When you are in a threatening environment, even if there’s not a direct threat to you, your stress hormones, or cortisol levels, become elevated. If this goes on regularly, you might have elevated cortisol even when you’re not in the situation.
What often happens next is a sense of hypervigilance. You become alert all the time, perhaps jumpy or unusually fearful, or just extremely aware at all times of what’s going on around you.
Hypervigilance can start to interfere with your daily life, making it difficult to carry out normal activities calmly. You might be easily spooked, shut down from other people or situations that overwhelm you, and start to feel suspicious of other people.
Our stress response is helpful to keep us alert in the moment of trauma or danger, but it’s not meant to be elevated over a long period. A constant state of alertness is exhausting and overwhelming. Simple tasks or your average, everyday environment can seem like too much to handle.
Our minds and bodies are connected in numberless and fathomless ways, but there are clear links between trauma and the body’s physiological responses.
You can see some of this in the stress hormone response we just discussed. And sometimes trauma shows up in our body in other ways, called somatic symptoms of trauma. You might experience pain, digestion problems, insomnia, or other issues.
Again, these symptoms are a typical response, but they’re not always easy to decipher. Sometimes your body reacts in ways that don’t seem to make sense. Having butterflies before a test is predictable, but why do you have pain or nausea before a social event?
It’s important to keep an eye on somatic symptoms in children, who may not be able to verbalize their traumatic experience. Since they can’t process their trauma through words, they may have strong physical symptoms that can alert teachers or caregivers to their internal struggle.
Somatic symptoms are just that – a symptom, not the root issue. Your doctor can help you rule out medical problems that might be causing your symptoms, and therapy can help you get to the bottom of trauma-based responses.
Often, post-traumatic stress involves having intrusive flashbacks of the trauma. It can be hard to stop thinking about it, even when you want to block it out. Sometimes these thoughts can bring your day to a halt. They can be triggered by or associated with any physical responses you’re having.
You might have other triggers, like smelling something that reminds you of the trauma and takes you back to that day. Your brain replays what happened, and you struggle to cope with what’s going on around you at the same time.
Other Common Trauma Responses
The trauma responses we’ve discussed are some of the most common, but there are others as well. Each individual will experience post-traumatic stress differently, with a different combination of symptoms, including possible anxiety, fear, intense emotional reactions, explosive behavior, having trouble making decisions, substance use, and other risky behavior.
So if you are going through a trauma response, how can you handle it? It might feel inevitable like there’s no hope for the future, but trauma-based treatment therapy has an excellent prognosis.
Treatment Options for Trauma Recovery
One factor affecting trauma recovery is the concept of resilience. Mental health experts study resilience, which according to the American Psychological Association, is “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress… It means ‘bouncing back’ from painful experiences.” Resilience can be developed over time and goes a long way in trauma recovery. Some people are able to recover on their own.
However, if you are having difficulty recovering your own, you could benefit greatly from support for trauma recovery, and this is not a sign of weakness; it’s normal to have an adverse response to trauma. Your symptoms may begin months or even years after the original event(s), and it’s still important to seek help if you’re struggling.
Here are a few of the standard treatment options for trauma. These are some areas to consider as you reach out for help for recovery.]
While self-care can be a social media buzzword, please don’t overlook its crucial importance in trauma recovery. Be kind to yourself and identify your symptoms as a reasonable response. Remind yourself that your struggles do not have to be permanent; there is hope, and you deserve the time and support it will take to experience healing.
Psychodynamic therapy is another way of referring to traditional talk therapy. In the counseling setting, you meet with a professional and talk through your symptoms and eventually, the traumatic experience itself.
Talk therapy can include a variety of different therapeutic interventions. Trauma-Focused CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, is one of the most common and effective techniques for trauma recovery. Narrative Therapy is another intervention that often proves useful.
The most critical factor in talk therapy for trauma is working with a counselor who has experience in this area, and with whom you feel comfortable. At Redding Christian Counseling, you can browse our online counselor directory and make a risk-free initial appointment to explore your treatment options and start the healing process.
If you are struggling with the physical effects of trauma, a variety of physical techniques may help you, including yoga or massage therapy. These can be used on their own or in conjunction with psychodynamic therapy. In your counseling sessions, your therapist may have you do breathing exercises and practice mindful attention to your body.
In the Christian counseling session, you are encouraged to explore questions of faith during your sessions. Where is God in your trauma and suffering? How can you know and experience Him in your ongoing pain and healing?
Call Redding Christian Counseling today at (424) 361-6197 to make your risk-free first appointment and reach out for hope and healing.
“Woman Praying”, Courtesy of Ben White, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Not in Public,” courtesy of Ezra Jeffrey, unsplash.com, Public Domain License; “What Should I Do?” courtesy of Ethan Sykes, unsplash.com, Public Domain License; “Alone,” courtesy of Jiri Wagner, unsplash.com, Public Domain License