This section discusses trauma and the gold standard for resolving trauma, Somatic Experiencing®. Trauma is the great imposter. Its effects look like so many other mental and physical disorders. Countless hours and billions of dollars are spent each year on medical treatments and psychotherapy sessions chasing the wrong demons. Marriages have been lost and devastated by the symptoms of trauma. Children raised by traumatized parents end up under-performing and with low self-esteem and in bad relationships. Employers aren't getting the full attention and abilities of their employees due to trauma. Yet few people understand trauma. Fewer still, know how to treat it. It turns out, in most cases that trauma is quite easy to treat, doesn't require a lot of talk and doesn't need all the emotional catharsis so common in psychotherapy. And best of all, treating trauma doesn't require retraumatizing a person by exposure to the phobia-related objects of their trauma.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is usually thought of as an event that is overwhelmingly threatening to the very life of the person experiencing it. I see trauma not being defined by the event itself but by the body's ability to process the event. What is traumatizing for one person may be just a challenging situation for another. It all depends on the sensitivity and the resiliency of your nervous system. So, a more comprehensive definition would be:
Trauma is an experience of, or witnessing of, a life-threatening or intense event that causes pronounced fear, helplessness, or horror which creates in its wake persistent changes in the functioning of the nervous system, reducing connection through the senses to the present environment.
How Do I Know if I Have Been Impacted by Trauma?
Usually we remember the traumas that have happened to us. In fact we usually can't get them out of our minds. But, quite often traumas happened to us at a very young age, before our neocortex finished forming, so there may be no recall of traumatic events. These would include prenatal and perinatal events as well as early childhood events. Sometimes too, there is a region of amnesia surrounding traumatic events that keeps us from reliving them daily. One of the ways you can get a pretty good idea if you have suffered from trauma is by seeing if you have many of the signs and symptoms. These are all associated with trauma:
- Physical ailments
- Intrusive imagery or flashbacks
- Extreme sensitivity to light or sounds
- Exaggerated emotional or startle responses
- Nightmares and night terrors
- Abrupt mood swings
- Reduced ability to deal with stress
- Difficulty sleeping
- Panic attacks
- Mental blankness or spaciness
- Avoidance behaviors
- Attraction to dangerous situations
- Frequent crying
- Exaggerated or diminished sexual activity
- Amnesia or forgetfulness
- Inability to love, nurture, or bond with others
- Fear of dying, going crazy, or having shortened life
- Inability to make commitments
- Chronic fatigue or very low physical energy
- Immune system problems
- Endocrine problems (e.g., low thyroid)
- Psychosomatic illnesses, particularly headaches, neck and back problems, asthma, digestive, spastic colon, severe premenstrual syndrome
- Depression, feelings of impending doom
- Feelings of detachment, alienation, and isolation (the ‘living dead’)
- Diminished interest in life
- Feelings of helplessness
- Nervous system dysregulation
What is Nervous System Dysregulation?
The autonomic nervous system's (ANS) job is to regulate heart rate, digestion, respiration rate, salivation, perspiration, diameter of the pupils, micturition (urination), and sexual arousal, among others. And, it does these things automatically without our having to focus on them, so that we can focus on more interesting tasks without being flooded by too much information. The real job of the ANS is to assure our survival under all of the conditions we may find ourselves in.
One of the hallmarks of trauma and of accumulated stress is that the ANS tends to become dysregulated. For instance at rest the heartbeat may be racing and breath may be rapid, blood pressure may be high, digestion may slow, we may find our mouth dry, or we may break out in a sweat, etc. Heat rate variability (HRV) may become suppressed. HRV is the natural and healthy tendency of the heart to speed up when we inhale and to slow down when we exhale. This is regulated by the Vagus nerve, an extremely important component of the ANS.
The autonomic nervous system is the first thing to come on line when we are developing in utero and is the last thing to shut down if we are suffocating. So, nature tells us it is the most important part of nervous system. When the ANS is dysregulated we are not firing on all cylinders and we can expect life to seem difficult. Relationships are severely impacted, health is compromised, and emotional well being is not often achieved.
When we talk about the desire to have healthy, supportive relationships then it is imperative to first get our autonomic nervous system back to functioning like a well oiled machine. Thankfully, there is now a therapy that is extremely effective at autonomic nervous system healing. That therapy is called Somatic Experiencing® (SE®).