How and Why is My Trauma Affecting Me?
Experiencing a trauma may be more common than you think. In fact, about 60% of men and 50% of women in the U.S. have experienced at least one traumatic event1. Of those individuals, around 8% of men and 20% of women develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)1. Even if you don’t meet criteria for a diagnosis of Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), you may still be experiencing the impact of a trauma.
What is trauma?
Clinical definitions of trauma refer to events that are life-threatening or threaten serious injury. Many mental health professionals agree that there are also traumas that aren’t necessarily life-threatening, but do threaten emotional or physical safety, violate a sense of security, or make us feel frightened and unsafe.
An event that makes you feel like you’re in real danger will trigger your body to go into survival mode – adrenaline and other stress hormones will course through your body to make you alert and give you the energy needed to respond to a threat. Digestion will slow and blood will rush toward your extremities to prepare you to fight, run away, or stay still. This is called the fight, flight or freeze response. This physiological reaction is ingrained into our biology and is very adaptive during threatening or dangerous situations. This is what helps us to stay alive! However, sometimes after the dangerous situation is over and there is no longer a sign of threat, this trauma response can’t “turn off.”
Why do I feel constantly “on guard”?
If you still experience a fight, flight or freeze response long after the trauma has ended, you can think of this reaction as your body’s way of overcorrecting in order to try to protect you from future danger – since our innate biology is designed to keep us safe, after a traumatic event we can become hypersensitive to any cues that we might be at risk to threat again. Your brain and body might begin to panic to notify you of any potential danger, kind of like a house security system that is set to extremely high alert. The downside to this “overcorrection” is that your body is responding as if there is imminent danger, when there may not be an actual threat present. So you might then experience an abrupt spike in your heart rate, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, tense muscles and the feeling of panic taking over when you’re in fact safe. If your fear, panic, or anger seem disproportionate to the situation, you may be experiencing a trauma response as a result of the lingering effects of trauma.
Why can’t I stop reliving the trauma?
In addition to feeling a persistent state of survival mode, you might find yourself unable to get the traumatic event out of your mind. This may show up through unwanted thoughts about the trauma when nothing was happening to remind you, bad dreams or nightmares about the event, or suddenly reliving the event through a flashback where it feels as if the traumatic event is actually happening again. Your biological drive is determined to do whatever it can to keep you safe. So in an effort to protect you and prevent you from ever going through a similar experience, your brain doesn’t want you to forget the trauma. The clear problem here is that re-experiencing the traumatic memory like this can be extremely distressing, preoccupy your mind and time, and be mentally, emotionally, and physically draining.
When dealing with the effects of trauma, it can feel like unpredictable things trigger your traumatic memories or survival response. It can feel like these external triggers have more control over your thoughts, emotions, and physical responses than you do. Not only can this be overwhelming and make you feel a loss of control, it can be incredibly debilitating, leading to feeling numb and detached, having trouble trusting yourself or other people, isolating, avoiding people and places, and frequently feeling strong negative emotions like fear, horror, anger, guilt, and shame.
What can I do about it?
If you’re having difficulty managing the intensity of your trauma response and symptoms, there are skills you can learn to use during a trauma trigger. Check out our other blog on grounding techniques here to learn what you can do to feel a little more relief and gain a little more control in those moments. Trauma therapy can also help you identify your triggers, the ways in which your trauma is impacting your life now, and how to gain a sense of mastery or control over your trauma reactions. If you’re wondering whether you’re ready to start trauma therapy, check out this blog here.
Call to Talk to a Therapist Today!
Dr. Mona Khaled specializes in trauma therapy and healthy boundary setting. Give her a call at (310) 453-8788 or fill out a contact form to speak with Dr. Mona today so you can learn more about how therapy can help you have healthier relationships with yourself and others.