Three Ways Trauma Affects You
Many people do not think of themselves as a trauma survivor. When the word “trauma” is used, it often conjures up thoughts such as sexual violence, a physical attack, or being the victim of a crime. Although these are certainly traumatic events, they are not the only kinds of events that can produce trauma symptoms. In fact, I would argue that everyone has experienced trauma at some point in their life and has developed trauma symptoms, whether or not they identified the experience as traumatic at the time.
Trauma is something that exceeds one’s threshold of stress tolerance. Not only will severe events like a physical or sexual assault cause psychological trauma, but trauma can also be caused by events such as a divorce, death, or being bullied. Trauma expert, Peter Levine, notes that trauma occurs in one’s nervous system and not in the actual traumatic event. In other words, each individual’s nervous system responds differently to his or her environment. Everyone has a different threshold of stress tolerance and that threshold is set by genetics, experience, and past traumas. Some people may have severe responses to certain events while others may exhibit a minor reaction to that same event. Each person’s stress threshold varies.
It’s important that we understand how deeply trauma impacts us when it occurs, so that we can understand its physical, generational, and emotional effects. Too many people minimize highly negative or stressful events that have happened to them. True, not everything warrants professional help or alarm, but some things do because they can trigger a negative impact for years to come. When it occurs, trauma has three main effects. Together, they explain why trauma influences our emotions and responses so negatively.
First, trauma literally changes the brain. It changes how the brain works, and if the trauma is prolonged (as in the cases of children who were sexually or physically abused repeatedly by a perpetrator), it can actually physically injure the brain (Howard & Crandall, 2007).
When something stressful occurs, our brain essentially gives an alert that we are in danger. If the trauma never lets up, or it is unpredictable when it will occur again, then our brain can get stuck in alert mode. While the brain is in alert mode and using high amounts of energy and stress hormones, our body depletes its resources and usually post-traumatic stress disorder develops (Howard & Crandall, 2007).
Trauma can cause the brain to go into alert mode so extensively that it causes damage to the brain cells. Our brains are not designed to be exposed to so many stress hormones at one time. When stress hormones are repeatedly released in high doses, our brain reacts and wears itself out. As a result, our memories and emotions become damaged. Children are especially vulnerable to trauma because their brains are still developing. In cases of prolonged trauma in childhood, an integrated personality is often not formed (Howard & Crandall, 2007).
Trauma can also impair brain function by training our brains to react to things that are not threatening. For example, if you get attacked by a dog, your brain will remember how it let you down by not warning you about the dog in time. To correct that problem, the brain becomes hyper-vigilant to do a better job. Each time you see a dog in the future, your brain will work overtime to give you warning. You might see a dog in the distance approaching you. As soon as you recognize that it’s a dog, your brain will send signals to the rest of your body to be on alert by increasing your breathing, dilating your eyes, and tightening the muscles in your legs so that you’re prepared to move if needed.
Your brain is acting as it should to keep danger at bay. However, this is unhelpful if the dog approaching you is not a threat. Maybe it’s just a small poodle—and now you look like a major wimp and have activated your stress response cycle for no reason. You are getting warning signs of danger when there is no actual present danger. Trauma can create a faulty template for your brain, and it can be difficult to override that template.
Secondly, trauma passes itself down through generations. Many who have experienced abuse or trauma as a child are often determined to raise their children better and shield them from danger. That is a noble and great goal. However, it’s also a bit naïve if you don’t get help from others to treat your own trauma first.
Figuring out trauma on your own is very difficult. Recent research has shown that trauma effects can actually be passed down to our children biologically. The short is this: trauma messes up the production of our short RNA molecules. When that happens, our normal cellular processes get messed up too, and when this occurs, our emotions and reactions do not necessarily work as they should. Essentially, these abnormal short RNA molecules can then be transmitted to our offspring for up to three generations! If you’d like an additional, perhaps more sophisticated and scientific, explanation of this dynamic, visit here (ETH Zurich, 2014).
Furthermore, trauma survivors can unknowingly pass down social effects of their trauma to their children. Typically those who have experienced something traumatic can begin to operate from a belief that the world is unsafe. This belief can easily be transmitted to children through how a parent interacts with his or her child—overprotection, coddling, catastrophizing, or not allowing the child to individuate from the parent. Such behaviors from a parent can transmit the belief of “the world is unsafe” to a child, even if the child has not experienced something traumatic firsthand. Soon the child’s brain may begin interacting with the world more fearfully and with more hyper vigilance than is good or necessary (Castelloe, 2012)
Finally, trauma impairs interpersonal relationships. As already noted, trauma usually makes people interact with the world more fearfully because of damaged brain areas. When it comes to relationships, those who have experienced trauma often are distrustful of others and can struggle to express emotional needs for fear of being hurt.
Trauma expert Kim Shilson explains: “Abused as children, adults who lack a secure attachment may become avoidant of establishing relationships, or overly dependent on others to meet their needs. In addition, they may turn to unhealthy coping strategies such as substance abuse, self-injurious behavior, or eating disorders in efforts to manage their distress. Diagnoses such as depression, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder (among others) are often seen among trauma survivors,” (The Trauma and Mental Health Report, 2012).
Experiencing trauma is serious. Yes, sometimes you can see some growth and healing on your own without anyone’s help. But often, the symptoms the trauma leaves with someone last a long time and can deeply impair one’s functioning and finances.
But here’s the good news: much research and study has been done on effective treatment strategies for trauma. In my therapeutic work, I personally use two modalities to treat trauma: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Somatic Experiencing. EMDR has been highly recommended by the American Psychiatric Association, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as a preferred treatment for trauma.
Somatic Experiencing helps alleviate the physical symptoms that occur as a result of trauma. I find that employing both methods has heeded great results with my clients in alleviating physical and psychological symptoms.
If you are a trauma survivor, you can get help for your negative symptoms. Solid research has shown that professional trauma therapy can reverse the effects of trauma and help you engage life more optimally. Also by investing in professional therapy, you are investing in a service that will help you save money that could possibly be lost in the future due to lessened productivity, medical concerns, or harmful effects that can be passed onto your family. Feel free to shoot me an email if you would like to learn more or have questions. I would love to hear your story.
Castelloe, M. (2012). How trauma is carried across generations. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-me-in-we/201205/how-trauma-is-carried-across-generations.
ETH Zurich. (2014). Hereditary trauma: Inheritance of traumas and how they may be mediated. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140413135953.htm.
Howard, S. & Crandall, M. (2007). Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: What happens in the brain? Washington Academy of Sciences. Retrieved from http://www.washacadsci.org/Journal/Journalarticles/V.93-3-Post%20Traumatic%20Stress%20Disorder.%20Sethanne%20Howard%20and%20Mark%20Crandalll.pdf.
The Trauma and Mental Health Report. (2012). Retrieved from http://trauma.blog.yorku.ca/2012/09/psychological-trauma-and-the-brain-interview-with-kim-shilson.