Recently, every training I have been to touches on the negative effects of trauma. All of the colleagues I work with discuss the trauma's of their clients. My friends, clients, family and myself included, it seems like everyone is talking about trauma. We even now are starting to talk about Vicarious trauma. I have a psychologist acquaintance that once said to me, "I just don't believe in trauma. It is overused, less than understood, and a blanket statement for anything that goes wrong in someone's life when they are growing up." I understood his point, but in my professional and personal experience the aftereffects of trauma as the general public knows it, cannot be understated.
In the mental health field we classify and define trauma as an experience where a person is fearful of serious bodily injury or death and the lasting consequences of those experiences. More recently we have begun to discuss "complex" trauma which is comprised of years and years of neglect, abuse, fear, pain, and stress. From extensive professional experience with people who have suffered both, and a personal history of having experienced both, I can undoubtedly say that each has its own negative effects and each are very difficult to heal from.
At some point not too long ago I started to really dive deeply into the reasons why relationships in my personal life were so challenging for me. I joined a women's group that meets each week, comprised of professional women who have difficulty with relationships. It was awkward to sit through group as a client instead of a therapist but as soon as I had completed the first group, I was certain I was in the right spot. There were common threads and themes and one of them happened to be that each woman in the group had experienced an event or experience that she perceived as traumatic.
It took 6 months of going every week, but with the help of those dear women, I figured out that the trust I lost on countless occasions through those acute and lasting traumas has deeply impacted my ability to connect to others. I am a survivor of an attempted sexual assault as a child, 3 muggings (one at gun point), a sexual assault as a young adult, an assault by a client, identify theft, and before all of that being raised in a family where I was consistently targeted and hurt by the matriarch, my grandmother.
Each of those experiences have added a different flavor of hypervigilence and anxiety when entering into a relationship where I am required to be vulnerable. Each of these experiences shape the way I approach, engage, empathize, and connect with others. Although I am no longer living in the moments of fear that ensued, I continue to experience over and over again the aftermath of having been fearful at the hand of other people.
Trauma is a complicated and ambiguous concept. The triggering event is different for everyone and the aftereffects are individualized as well. We can usually work backwards to figure out the traumas that create symptoms, but it rarely works the other way; it is difficult to foresee the way in which a person might be impacted long term during a trauma. In my experience, only when a person feels truly safe and protected can they acknowledge moments where they have felt threatened and mistreated. Only following the acknowledgement can a person move forward by investigating the ways in which their traumas impact their present moment. Only after delving deeply into those effects can we find ways to grow and thrive while still carrying around the burden of those experiences. Only in growing is the opportunity for healing.
We never forget traumatic experiences, but we can learn how to manage our feelings by utilizing coping strategies to minimize the lasting negative consequences. Even though there are many professionals out there that believe that trauma is over used to describe life experiences, naming a trauma that frightened us enough to last a lifetime can be validating and begin the process of changing our present moment.