10 basic concepts in trauma therapy
If you believe to be suffering from trauma, you could benefit from understanding how it affects your mind, emotions and behaviour. Below you will find a list of 10 basic concepts in trauma therapy so to expand your knowledge and facilitate further learning:
- Traumatic event: a traumatic event is an adverse experience so overwhelming that overcomes one’s ability to cope. This could be a very frightening or shocking event, such as being in a car accident. Growing up suffering verbal abuse from someone one knows, loves and trusts can also lead to trauma.
- Types of trauma: trauma goes beyond physical injury, but it concerns any negative experience that affects an individual as a whole person, body and mind. Therefore, trauma can also be of an emotional/psychological and relational nature. Trauma is referred to as “simple”, when it is of a single occurrence, such as in the example of the car accident mentioned above. Complex trauma, conversely, consist of a series of traumatic events that happen over a long period. Childhood or developmental trauma is a classic example of complex trauma.
- Trigger: it is something or someone that reminds you of a traumatic event. A trigger can be a smell, sound, behaviour or even an emotion that connects you to past trauma. Adults that as children suffered emotional abuse by a parent, for instance, may be triggered by a situation in which he or she witnesses the same type of abuse. Under the influence of triggers, one may have flashbacks and re-experience the negative emotions and bodily sensations related to a particular traumatic event.
- Flashback: as mentioned previously, a flashback is the activation of a traumatic memory, with or without the intention of the victim/survivor. When one has a flashback, he or she feels as if re-living the adverse experience that led to the trauma. Contrary to popular knowledge, not every flashback has a visual component that follows it. In some instances, flashbacks do not activate images, but exclusively the negative emotions and/or bodily sensations experienced when the trauma took place.
- Fight or flight response: when the brain identifies a threat to our wellbeing, be it real or imaginary, it prepares our body for action, in other words, fight an enemy, flight the scene or freeze on the spot. When on fight or flight mode, our physiology changes so to adapt to our self-preservation and protection needs: our heart beats faster, breathing becomes shorter and muscles tenser so to get us ready to fight or make an escape. These physiological changes reflect our nervous system state of high alert and survival.
- Chronic traumatic stress: stress that is experienced in a healthy or manageable manner does not tend to last very long. The great majority of stresses we come to deal with in life are short-lived, such as rushing in the morning to be at work on time. Chronic traumatic stress, however, is not temporary, but it can last for months or even years. A vulnerable victim of domestic abuse or a war prisoner, for instance, may experience stress that does not abate and, as a result, it becomes chronic over time.
- Hypervigilance: it is a state of constant arousal. When one is hypervigilant, even without awareness, his or her body is on survival mode, or fight or flight. In that state, people are biased to the negative, tend to catastrophize and see threats or dangers where there is none, since their brains are constantly on high alert. For that reason, hypervigilant people are much more likely to worry excessively and have an anxiety disorder.
- The neurobiology of trauma: simply put, it explains how trauma affects the brain. When studying the neurobiology of trauma, one understands how exposure to continuous stress during development, for instance, can lead to a sharp increase in the activity of the limbic system or the area responsible for the fight or flight response, to a point where the victim becomes hypervigilant and unable to switch that response off.
- PTSD and C-PTSD: exposure to a single or several traumatic events can lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, respectively. PTSD symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, sleeping disturbances, hypervigilance and irritability. C-PTSD sufferers also exhibit these symptoms, as well as chronic shame and guilt, built-up anger, suicidal thoughts, relationship and emotional regulation problems, amongst others.
- Re-traumatisation: re-traumatisation may occur when a trauma victim is exposed to certain people, situations and behaviours that somehow bring out a state of vulnerability similar to when the original trauma took place. A classic example of re-traumatisation is when a woman that has suffered rape is blamed for what happened by the authorities involved in her case, such as a judge or a police officer.
Unresolved trauma can be quite debilitating and compromise quality of life. If you would like help to deal with the effects of trauma, I highly recommend Attachment-Focused EMDR. Please click here to learn about the approach or contact me to request an appointment.