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.