Most people experience some trauma in their life time. Trauma can be defined as an overwhelming experience where a person perceives their life to be in danger. This can include accidents, natural disasters like hurricanes or floods, or experiences of one time or going assaults. It is striking how often the prevalence of traumatic experiences and interpersonal violence are denied, minimized or distorted in the US (and around the world for that matter).
Neuroscience has made great strides in the last few years in understanding how the human brain processes traumatic experience differently than non-traumatic experience. When life threat is involved, certain structures in the brain responsible for encoding the experience in memory, organizing memory, and planning and reflecting on experience “turn off” and the memory is largely encoded as a sensory experience or flashes of visual memory. These highly charged memories can be “triggered”—including the terror or shut down that occurred as a result — by experiences in the present that are somehow similar to the original trauma. While far more complex than can be detailed here, the take home message is that individuals with a history of trauma can be triggered into “re-experiencing the trauma” in a way where it feels as though it is happening how. For this reason, it is ESSENTIAL that individuals with a history of trauma who want to work in therapy to resolve symptoms of trauma meet with therapists trained in trauma treatment. VERY OFTEN, talking about the trauma makes one feel worse and can be “re-traumatizing”.
Therapy for trauma involves working with resources for calming and soothing a person, so that the memory can be processed with the person “present”. Some of these resources are already available to the person and some are taught. Treatment needs to proceed planfully, with stabilization in life occurring before a person work on healing from the trauma. For every patient (but especially those involved in witnessing or experiencing domestic violence) both safety and stabilization are the essential, primary goals of therapy. No healing can take place unless one feels safe.
The experience of trauma survivors needs to be understood as the body and brain’s response to overwhelming experience —especially because shame and self-blame are so often felt by survivors. This shame and self-criticism are compounded by our society’s propensity to deny, hide, and turn away from the reality that these experiences occur far too often. Trauma survivors need to know—you are not alone.