As humans, we all have experiences in our lives that leave an indelible mark on us. Some of these experiences equate to trauma and traumatic situations and shape us much like our happy and joyous moments do, though perhaps more powerfully.
We obviously seek to avoid traumatic experiences for ourselves and our loved ones – but to live a life without encountering ‘trauma’ is often unrealistic, and may actually be more anxiety-inducing of a goal than the alternative. It’s more helpful to understand what trauma is, learn helpful ways to cope when traumatic events arise and find ways to be resilient and fortified in the face of life’s hurdles.
PTSD is a surprisingly common condition affecting between 5-10% of the Australian population. Because not everyone who experiences trauma goes on to develop PTSD symptoms, the prevalence of people impacted by trauma is even higher. Most people with PTSD are not aware that they are being impacted by it, and so it often goes entirely undiagnosed. Psychological treatment and trauma-informed counselling are highly effective and deemed the first-line treatment for those impacted by trauma.
How do you know if you are experiencing trauma?
When we experience or witness something that is deeply disturbing, distressing or disempowering, we may experience trauma as a response. Trauma is a natural, biological response to situations that are not normal.
Situations in which you feel particularly helpless or which ignite an extreme fear response are most likely to leave you feeling and responding in a traumatised way. Just as often, people report feeling numb to the distress at the time, feeling detached from themselves or others.
Experiences that can be traumatic include, but are not limited to:
- Sexual violence, assault and abuse
- Physical accidents or injuries
- Bushfires and natural disasters
- Frontline emergency and disaster work
- Racism, bigotry and discrimination
- Lack of empowerment and conditions of injustice
- Life threatening illness
- Surgical operations
- Lack of safety; dangerous living conditions
- Domestic and family violence
- Physical violence and threats
- Psychological violence and threats
- Childhood neglect or abuse
- Evictions or homelessness
- Health pandemics and disease outbreaks
- Loss of one’s job or identity
When you are traumatised, your body and your mind ignite a very powerful fear response: think of sweaty palms, dilated pupils, a racing heart, brain freeze and restlessness. Our evolutionary response options of fight, flight or freeze are activated to protect us and help us cope in a situation outside of our control.
A simple fear response (say, in response to a spider found in your car) peaks quickly and dissipates quickly thereafter.
PTSD responses are reactions that make protective sense to the time of the traumatic event, but become destructive or dysfunctional when they persist after the trauma.
After experiencing a traumatic event, this fear response may become chronic, persistent and stay with you long term. You may continue to feel terrified, hypervigilant, unsafe, dissociated or depressed, even in the absence of the actual threat. When this occurs, you might be said to be experiencing a prolonged and chronic stress response called Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Left unprocessed, or processed in a distorted way, traumatic responses (psychological and physical) can continue long after the traumatic incident has subsided.
PTSD tends to feel incredibly intrusive and constant, and tends to follow a very seriously distressing event- someone who lived through bushfires, a war zone, or a survivor of rape might sustain the symptoms of a traumatic response in their day to day life. Triggers- seemingly inane stimuli in your everyday environment that your brain may associate with threat as a result- can cause unwanted, intrusive and destabilising symptoms, even if no ‘real’ threat is actually present.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affects about 8% of women and 5% of men in the Australian population. This makes it quite common, although many people who struggle with these symptoms might not feel initially comfortable to seek professional help. This hesitation to reach out or seek support may be a result of experiencing trauma too – survivors of complex trauma may already have experiences and concerns with speaking out safely, being believed, being labelled negatively or might wish to actively avoid bringing up the traumatic event to save discomfort.
Trauma and PTSD often involve and are present alongside anxiety, depression, grief, relationship issues, alcohol or drug abuse and self-medication, so it might be hard to spot among other symptoms.
Processing trauma – Talking about your trauma can really help
It is vital that people who have experienced trauma or are experiencing symptoms of PTSD can access quality, professional help.
Trauma and PTSD symptoms often have very negative and distressing effects on people’s family and intimate relationships, work and career, and quality of life. Therapy and trauma counselling is a key and highly effective method for helping to process and resolve trauma. PTSD can feel very wearing, and affects a person wholly- in terms of physical, mood, cognitive and emotional depletion.
Whether it’s personal trauma or generational trauma; a single incident or complex and prolonged trauma; resolving and properly processing the traumatic events is paramount to being able to shift away from a constant, phobic and fearful response to life.
The body of scientific research supports targeted talking therapies as highly effective in treating PTSD long term and improving people’s quality of life. You can learn more about PTSD and PTSD treatment therapies here.
A person’s phobic response to the discomfort of trauma and subsequent efforts to avoid this are such a strong pull for survivors of trauma. Unfortunately, this strategy of avoidance rarely works and fails to resolve it, leaving a person to perpetuate their suffering. Trauma therapy works because to process and resolve trauma, we need to be able to sit with, confront and learn to tolerate addressing the trauma, without avoiding it. This is an immensely difficult thing to do, as the fear response is often unbearable and overwhelming.
A trained and capable trauma counsellor or psychologist creates a space and provides you with strategies that allow you to get to a point where you can process the impacts of trauma with a sense of safety
Benefits of Trauma counselling
Counsellors and psychologists who are specifically trained and experienced in working with trauma help people to gain control over disempowering moments and memories safely, an important part of processing trauma. Quality trauma counselling is highly effective in providing the tools to better cope with distressing memories, be resilient in future events, and function better to give yourself the best chance of growing from your experiences, instead of feeling stunted by them.
Therapy is not a magic wand, and processing and discussing trauma is hard. Good quality professional help is key to recovery and resilience, and can help to make new sense of the world in a helpful way. Rebuilding after trauma is difficult but it is possible, and very many people go on to build enriching futures.
Life Supports accredited counsellors and psychologists can help
If you are ready to seek help and support in coping with trauma, look for a counsellor or psychologist that is trained and experienced in working with trauma, trauma-informed therapies and PTSD.
Trauma Counselling FAQs
How to recover from emotional trauma?
Emotional trauma is an extraordinarily stressful and at times crippling experience, but it can be overcome. Trauma symptoms sometimes resolve themselves over time, but for other people counselling and support is necessary.
Healing from trauma involves many steps, and these can vary depending on the traumatic experience and your own personal psychology, but one of the first is identifying and accepting your feelings. Other steps include confronting unpleasant memories, expending the stressful energy that has built up over time, taking steps to learn to regulate your emotions better, and working on rebuilding your interpersonal relationships.
What is intergenerational trauma?
Intergenerational trauma refers to trauma experienced by a parent or grandparent or ancestor that may be passed down through families. This inheritance can be social, transferred through inherited patterns of abuse and mental ill-health, or it can be genetic; the scientific field of epigenetics has demonstrated that traumas experienced in life can alter gene expression in our offspring.
Intergenerational trauma can be extremely difficult to overcome, because it’s deeply rooted often from birth. However, recovery is possible, and with good mental health support you can break the cycle of inherited trauma and go on to have a fulfilling life and relationships.
Can childhood trauma affect adulthood?
Trauma experienced during childhood can carry through into adulthood, or sometimes reappear in unexpected and new ways. Sometimes, children who’ve experienced trauma grow up with a heightened stress response that is acutely sensitive to threat. This can make it harder to regulate emotions, and lead to a plethora of mental and physical health struggles, including anxiety and depression, PTSD, obesity, heart disease and more.
However, childhood trauma is not a life-sentence. Evidence-based therapy can help to ease the symptoms and often heal from childhood trauma so that it doesn’t define an adult’s life.
How long does it take to recover from trauma?
There is no set time-frame for trauma recovery because each person is different, and their experience unique. For some, with therapy trauma from a single event may resolve in days to weeks, for others it can take months or years, especially people who’ve been exposed to repeated traumatic events.
Trauma recovery is all about making a person feel safe again, and with good therapy and support it is achievable – on any time scale.
How to support someone who has experienced trauma?
Trauma can be shattering for not only the experiencer, but their loved ones too. Because trauma can feel very isolating, some people withdraw. It’s important if someone you care about has experienced a trauma to be understanding and respectful of their space and their needs, and to acknowledge that they may not feel safe in intimacy at the moment. There are however a number of steps you can take to support them:
- Offer your support – make it known that you are there to support them in whatever way they need, whether it’s emotional support or practical support, like helping them with tasks
- Give them time and space – acknowledge that it may take a while for them to feel some semblance of ‘normality’, and that they may need a lot of space
- Let them talk about the trauma, but only if they are comfortable doing so – don’t try to force someone to open up if they’re not ready or willing
- Don’t judge them, and don’t use phrases like “look on the bright side” – just be there for them without trying to change their outlook or offer too much advice
- Include them in activities, even if they may not behave exactly like themselves – socialising and enjoying fun activities can be a core component of trauma recovery, but don’t try to force someone to do anything they’re not comfortable doing
- If they are suffering without improvement, gently encourage them to seek professional help, which can be a really important component of trauma recovery.
How to not let trauma define you
Trauma can be extremely overwhelming, and for some sufferers it can feel as though it’s taking over your personality or ‘defining’ you in some way. However, with time, management and – for some – professional help, it’s possible to move past trauma so that it simply becomes something that happened to you, not something that defines you.
This involves addressing the trauma, acknowledging it and working through it, which may seem impossible. That’s why therapy can be a helpful, safe, and non-judgemental space in which to confront and move past your trauma with the help of an experienced, empathetic professional.