Written by Chris Green, MSW, LICSW
Throughout history, people have experienced life disturbing events, both personally and as a community. The way we talk about these events and their impact has changed significantly over generations. Society is beginning to recognize the importance of this discussion as we seek to find meaningful and helpful ways to address this type of pain in our communities. It is becoming more common to hear people talk about trauma and its impact. It’s become even more significant as we navigate the current global pandemic that has created difficulty and hardship for so many. While we are witnessing the impact of the virus itself, we are yet to realize the subsequent impacts of poverty, isolation, and loss. This moment we are in now provides a valuable opportunity to continue the conversation to address personal healing and support prevention efforts.
The ways that people deal with a life disturbing event in order to survive is amazing. One of the most important jobs that our brain has is to get us into the next day. Trauma responses are adaptive and meant to protect and sustain life. These self-protecting responses are smart solutions in the moment.
However, they can be costly over time. This cost shows up once the moment has passed, and the brain continues to use the same method of dealing with past stress and danger in situations where it is not helpful. This becomes maladaptive or unhealthy behavior that creates difficulty in other areas of life.
Most people will experience a full range of emotions after a life disturbing event and recover. But for some, symptoms will persist past the time of recovery. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that may develop after someone experiences a scary, terrifying, or dangerous event. An estimated 7-8 percent of the population will have PTSD at some point in their lives. PTSD creates significant difficulties in many areas of life, including home, work, school, and relationships. When these difficulties persist 30 days past the event and impacts a person’s ability to function well in their life we begin to consider a diagnosis of PTSD.
PTSD may cause people to experience a decreased interest in their hobbies and activities, feel detached from themselves and others, and difficulty feeling happiness or love. Life disturbing events also affect our nervous system causing us to feel jumpy, restless, on edge, always on guard or looking for danger, or irritable. It can also cause us to participate in risky behaviors, have difficulty with sleep, or difficulty concentrating or focusing. *
People with PTSD have among the highest rates of healthcare service use. PTSD can present with a range of physical symptoms, the cause of which may be overlooked or misdiagnosed as having resulted from past trauma.
PTSD can cause ongoing, unwanted distressing thoughts or memories of the life disturbing event. Some people will have dreams or intense, prolonged distress when reminded of the trauma. Simple cues or objects can evoke responses as if the event is happening all over again. In the moment, our brain has a hard time deciding between a real threat and one that looks/sounds/feels real. In truth, this is okay. It is more important for our brain to take the side of protection than to be open to a threat. And we can see why this would cause issues in our life. If our brain is in self-protection mode it may react in a way that is not helpful in the moment when a threat is not actually present. People with PTSD may find themselves reacting strongly in situations where it is not necessary, leading to further stress in relationships and other areas of life. Some people plan their lives and make decisions as if the trauma is still taking place. This thought process creates and sustains a loop that can lead to further difficulties and trauma. Research shows that those with trauma are at a much higher rate for re-traumatization. *
It makes sense that when we have a significant life disturbing event that we would want to avoid thinking about it or being reminded of it. Individuals with trauma go to great lengths to avoid people, places, and things that remind them of a traumatic experience. They also find themselves staying extra busy or distracted to avoid thoughts or memories of the event. *
The trauma experience affects the way we think about ourselves and the world. It impacts our memory and our body sensations. People who have experienced trauma may have a hard time remembering aspects of the event. They may blame themselves or others unfairly for the trauma. Or they may start to think of themselves and others in a different way, such as ‘I am bad,’ ‘the world is dangerous and unsafe,’ or ‘I can’t trust others.’*
It is important to note that not everyone that experiences a life disturbing event will develop PTSD. It is the individual’s experience of the event, not the event itself, that is indicative of PTSD. Many factors influence why one person may develop PTSD in response to a life disturbing event, while another will not. One of the main factors to consider is the idea of agency, or the ability to influence or control what is currently happening to you. Those with less agency, or ability to do something about their situation, have a higher likelihood of developing trauma. As you can imagine, feeling stuck or unable to help yourself or others is terrifying, helpless, and scary. Other factors that may play a role are genetic predisposition to mental health concerns, current environmental supports, sex/gender, previous trauma, and resources.
We know that what is not integrated, or healed, gets repeated. Trauma causes fragmentation. Disorder. Good trauma work provides structure and seeks to integrate, or heal, the traumatic experience so that one can find mastery and agency in life again.
We know that trauma changes the physiology of the brain, including your alarm system’s response to danger, an increase in stress hormones, and your ability to distinguish between real and perceived threats. Why is this important? All too often, the stigma in our society sees mental health as something that someone ‘just needs to get over,’ ‘it’s all in your head,’ or a personal flaw. That couldn’t be further from the truth. These beliefs are not only unhelpful, but they are also hurtful. In reality, wellness and wellbeing is a complex interplay of many systems of interrelated parts.
It is important to be clear that people who develop or experience trauma or any other mental health concern are not flawed. People do the best they can with what they have at each moment. We are individuals formed and shaped in the context of our genes, the skills of our parents and their parents, vocation, financial flexibility, and temperament. The key to focus on is the repair after the rupture. To use our past and present experience as an opportunity to learn and grow into our best selves. Meet yourself with kindness today, wherever you are, knowing that what you have been through will provide the space and opportunity to grow even stronger.
* These symptoms are discussed in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-5).
If you or someone you know is struggling, distressed, or experiencing a mental health crisis, please call our 24/7 Support & Crisis HelpLine at 800-282-5005 or text MN to 741 741.
Chris Green is a Mental Health Professional the Manager of Trauma-Informed Care at Northwestern Mental Health Center. Chris see clients ages seven years and older with a special focus on adolescents and young adults. He is certified in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy (TF-CBT), and he is EMDRIA Certified in EMDR. Chris sees clients in our Crookston clinic location or via telemedicine.