First of all, what is a trauma response?
To understand trauma responses, we need to get a little into the science of humans. Stuff that has existed ever since the dawn of humankind. It is what helps us stay alive.
In essence, our bodies have both physical and psychological reactions to trauma. The source of these reactions is a part of our nervous system called the autonomic nervous system.
When trauma happens (or is about to happen), the system becomes activated rather quickly, and we enter a “fight or flight” response.
These responses force us to either stay and fight or flee from the cause of the trauma. In the context of this discussion, we will be discussing the psychological impact that trauma has on our ability to function and navigate through our daily lives, including how it impacts our relationships.
What are some examples of trauma responses?
Let me begin with a story about a little boy with no siblings. This little boy lived a rather ordinary life. He had friends he played with, was able to enjoy playing by himself, and felt protected by his parents. However, this little boy lacked the sense of being loved by his parents.
He did not realize this until many years later.
One Saturday morning, the little boy woke up and went into the kitchen to find some cereal for breakfast. What he saw sitting on the kitchen counter were an empty pill bottle and a handwritten note. As this little boy read the letter and slowly realized it was a suicide note, he simultaneously heard his father screaming his mother’s name.
Ultimately, the mother survived her suicide attempt and was hospitalized in a locked psychiatric ward for many months. All the time, the little boy received no trauma support, intervention, or even a simple act of recognizing how hard this whole experience must have been on him.
As this little boy grew up, he had a trauma response embedded into his subconscious. That response was created by the premise that he was not good enough for his mother to stay alive for him and that his father, a man incapable of showing any emotion, did not care about him.
The response became one of an extreme people pleaser and “fixer” of all problems, all in a vain attempt to prevent others from leaving him as his mother tried to do so many years earlier. As these behaviors continued to flourish over the years, the little boy (biologically a man at this point) could not understand why so many relationships, including multiple marriages, failed.
Even his job, which he loves, is about helping others. He became a doctor.
You don’t have to be a small child to have created a trauma response. Traumatic events can occur at various stages of our lives. Some examples: include unknowingly entering into a physical and abusive relationship, finding out your spouse of many years has been unfaithful, suffering verbal abuse from a co-worker or boss, witnessing a violent event, and more.
Of course, there are many other examples of trauma response. Some people have physical manifestations such as headaches, stomach aches, acne breakout, muscular pain, sleeplessness, oversleeping, rapid heart rate, autoimmune diseases, and many more. Some people have psychological manifestations such as fear, anxiety, depression, extreme jealousy, anger, hopelessness, worthlessness, and more. Some people have a combination of both.
There are also many subsets to the responses, such as overeating, eating poorly (poor diet), not exercising, alcohol and drug abuse, overexercising, creating poor financial habits (not spending money on essentials or overspending by purchasing items that are not needed), not taking care of personal hygiene, engaging in sexual behavior that is considered risky, etc.
Healing your trauma
Now that we have a basic understanding of trauma, we can better understand how we can heal from it.
Yes, we can recover from trauma at any point in our lives.
You may have heard of neural plasticity and how the brain can map new pathways. In other words, our brains can be rewired, and our responses to trauma triggers can be altered to change our perceptions. I am sure you have read or heard about people taking these steps into their brave new world to discover who they are and what they want out of life.
It is not as simple as flipping a switch one day and saying, “I am cured. Everything is great!” Instead, it is recognizing that trauma has occurred (acceptance) and seeking out people, resources, and the like that will help guide you through the journey of healing.
There are countless resources available, ranging from doing the work yourself to working with a coach or other professional. The process is not easy and can be painful at times, with some days being better than others, and most importantly, recognizing that the journey and self-evolution never ends.
Going back to the little boy, who, if you have not already figured out, is me, spent years blaming and finding fault with others who would not accept his people-pleasing and his role as the fixer of all problems. Instead, with the help of many people (Natasha Adamo included) and the unwavering determination to be on a path of healing, he was able to accept fully that his parents did the best they could and that, despite spending decades believing otherwise, he was able to create different responses to triggers, find new and other ways to engage in relationships, and realize the new path in front of him is endless with many opportunities for happiness and fulfillment.
Written by: Natasha Adamo Team Member, Mort.