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How to Reclaim Life After Experiencing Trauma

Trauma and reclaiming life

Most humans would agree that fear, anger, and pain don’t feel good or create positive outcomes most of the time. While these emotions arise for various reasons, they are also typical reactions for people who are experiencing or have experienced trauma. According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, 70% of adults (roughly 224 million people) in the U.S. have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives. Researchers have found that trauma can be passed down from a parent to their offspring and are working on advancing knowledge in this area. Research on the correction of trauma through positive experiences is also on the rise.

What is trauma?

The Center for Anxiety Disorders defines trauma as, “a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing.” The level of severity and the impact of trauma varies person to person. However, out of those who experience severe trauma, one in three experience PTSD. 

Trauma can stem from the following:

  • Cultural, intergenerational, and historical trauma
  • Witnessing acts of violence
  • Accidents and natural disasters
  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Childhood abuse or neglect
  • Being a solider or veteran of war
  • Grief and loss

Types of Trauma

Trauma can be broken down into three categories:

  • Acute– This type of trauma occurs from a single distressing event that is impressive enough to threaten a person’s emotional or physical security. The event makes an impactful impression on the person’s mind, informing how they think and behave, especially in the long-term if not treated by a professional.
  • Chronic– This type of trauma happens when a person is exposed to frequent distressing traumatic events over an extended period of time. It may result from a long-term serious illness, sexual abuse, domestic violence, bullying, and/or exposure to extreme situations. Chronic trauma can arise from several occurrences of acute trauma or untreated acute trauma. The symptoms of chronic trauma often crop up after years after the event. The symptoms may manifest as labile or unpredictable emotional outbursts, anxiety, extreme anger, flashbacks, fatigue, body aches, headaches, and nausea. Individuals experiencing chronic trauma can develop trust issues and have unstable relationships or jobs. In this case, assistance from a qualified psychologist is usually required to enable the person to recover from the distressing symptoms.
  • Complex– Complex trauma comes from exposure to varied and frequent traumatic events or experiences. The events generally involve interpersonal relationships and may give the person experiencing the trauma a feeling of being trapped. The person’s mind may be severely impacted and their health, relationships, and performance at work or school could also be impacted. Victims of childhood abuse, neglect, domestic violence, family disputes, and other repetitive situations, such as civil unrest may develop complex trauma.

Symptoms of Trauma

Trauma can have psychological, emotional, and physical consequences on health.

Psychological and emotional symptoms

  • Shock, denial, or disbelief
  • Obsessive and compulsive behaviors
  • Confusion, difficulty concentrating
  • Anger, irritability, mood swings
  • Panic attacks
  • Anxiety and fear
  • Guilt, shame, self-blame
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Lack of interest in previously-enjoyable activities
  • Feeling sad or hopeless
  • Feeling disconnected or numb
  • Avoidance of activities or places that trigger memories of the event

Physical symptoms

  • Insomnia or nightmares
  • Fatigue
  • Being startled easily
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Edginess and agitation
  • Aches and pains
  • Muscle tension
  • Extreme alertness

Trauma Can Lead To Several Conditions

Experiencing trauma can result in the following conditions:

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is a heightened, prolonged stress response that develops into a chronic mental health condition. It causes flashbacks, nightmares, fear, and avoidance of anything reminiscent of the trauma. Not everyone develops PTSD after being traumatized, but most people who experience trauma will also experience symptoms of acute stress. What differentiates PTSD from other trauma and stress-related disorders is how long its symptoms last. People with PTSD go long periods, and even years, dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic event.

Acute Stress Disorder (ASD)

ASD is also triggered by trauma. It is similar to PTSD, but not as prolonged. It may be experienced for at least three days but not longer than a month.

Adjustment Disorders (AD)

Adjustment disorders are a group of conditions that arise from an inability to cope with stressful events in a healthy or positive way. For example, a best friend’s death causes a person to go out and drink and drive. There is no evidence to suggest that an AD is the result of a specific factor. There are six types of AD. Each one is characterized by dominant symptoms: anxiety, depression, anxiety and depression together, inappropriate behaviors, inappropriate behaviors with depression and anxiety, and unspecified.

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)

RAD occurs when children fail to develop healthy attachments to their caretakers (parents). Children experiencing RAD are often neglected by their caregivers. As a result, babies or children with RAD may be withdrawn, sad, afraid, listless, and unengaged with others.

Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder (DSED)

Like RAD, DSED is an attachment disorder that affects children who have been traumatized and neglected. However, in this case, children show little if any hesitation in approaching strangers. They tend to display verbal or physical behavior that is overly familiar.

Other and Unspecified Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders

People may be diagnosed as having other or unspecified disorders related to stress and trauma when they are exhibiting some symptoms of a specific condition. Also, this applies to cases where isn’t enough information to make a more specific diagnosis.

Trauma in Humans and Animals

Recent research has led to the discovery that trauma is inheritable. This inherited trauma is passed down from parents to their children via DNA. The study of this process is called epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work. Epigenetic changes are different than genetic changes because they can be reversed and don’t actually change your DNA sequence. They do, however, change the way your body reads a DNA sequence.

One study conducted on humans found Holocaust survivors passed trauma to their children’s genes. The likelihood of the Holocaust survivors’ children developing stress disorders was higher than that of Jewish families who were living outside of Europe during World War II. A study conducted by Emory University in Atlanta revealed, “mouse pups — and even the offspring’s offspring — can inherit a fearful association of a certain smell with pain, even if they have not experienced the pain themselves, and without the need for genetic mutations.”

Trauma within the Black Community

As well-known as the story of the enslavement of Black people is, it’s also a story that gets dismissed quite often. Unfortunately, with the dismissal of an entire painful experience that lasted for 246 years comes ignorance related to what trauma the group is experiencing. Whether Blacks are experiencing trauma at all has been a source of debate when it really shouldn’t be given the cruelty endured by the group and the institutionalized oppression it’s still dealing with. Thankfully scholars and advocates like Dr. Joy DeGruy, who wrote the book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, are discovering just how Blacks are still being affected by the trauma associated with slavery, as well as trauma encountered within everyday life.

According to DeGruy:

“Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is a theory that explains the etiology of many of the adaptive survival behaviors in African American communities throughout the United States and the Diaspora. It is a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery. A form of slavery which was predicated on the belief that African Americans were inherently/genetically inferior to whites. This was then followed by institutionalized racism which continues to perpetuate injury.”

Trauma Black people are dealing with as of 2021 (before, current, and after):

  • Multigenerational trauma due to slavery
  • Multigenerational trauma due to oppression of opportunities and resources such as education and jobs
  • Racial Trauma (also known as Race-based Traumatic Stress or RBTS)- the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes- due to ongoing oppression
  • Trauma due to higher death rates associated with the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Trauma as a result of the public display of deaths associated with police brute force in the media
  • Broken homes and trauma experienced due to incarceration at higher rates
  • Trauma experienced due to higher birth mortality rates
  • Stress and trauma associated with stereotypes and social pressures
  • Trauma due to spontaneous events that transpire such as car accidents

Although it’s difficult and impossible to completely escape racism and discrimination, healing is crucial for the perseverance of the Black community. The journey to heal as individuals and as a collective is one that must be trekked because it’s needed for better socio-economical outcomes.

7 Tips to Begin Overcoming Trauma

While trauma may seem impossible to overcome, it isn’t! You can heal from a traumatic experience/s. Here’s how you can begin the healing journey:

1. Accept that you have experienced trauma

It’s time to acknowledge the trauma you’ve endured. If you don’t accept that you’re being affected by trauma, then you won’t ever overcome it. You can’t overcome trauma if you don’t accept that Sit with yourself and be honest about your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Assess yourself based on how you used to be before the event occurred. Were you happy and even-tempered, but now you’re moody most days? If you feel you don’t seem like your usual self, it may be due to a traumatic event that has taken place within your life.

2. Seek help and support

People suppress traumatic events for various reasons. When this happens, it can become difficult to realize you may be handling an experience or event in a way that’s doing more harm to you than good. If someone you know comes to you and tells you they think you’re acting unusual, try listening to them before becoming defensive. This can be a signal that you’re suppressing something worthy of exploring that is affecting you.

Try to approach your trauma gently. Write it out in a journal or somewhere you can have privacy. Then, try to share it with people you trust gradually if you want. The thing is that if you don’t share what happened (at least with a mental health pro), you’re more likely to suppress it and build destructive behaviors, as a result.

However, if you do decide to share your trauma be careful because you may find that someone you thought you could trust might not respond to your truth in a positive or expected way. If you don’t think you can speak with anyone you personally know about your trauma, book a session with a mental health professional such as a psychologist, counselor, or social worker. You can even post anonymously on a mental health professional forum online.

3. Be proactive about your personal healing

The only person that can help you truly heal is yourself. That doesn’t mean a mental health professional can’t assist you with that. It just means they can’t force you to show up for appointments or do the activities they may assign you. You are fully responsible for doing the actual work. If something is causing you major distress, the first step is learning that it doesn’t have to. No matter what: in life some things are just painful regardless of anything you do. While it’s unfortunate and unfair, it’s one of those rules in life that can’t be broken. Accept this truth, and move forward so you can make the changes to feel better.

4. Realize healing is not linear

Healing is a process and in your lifetime you may have to heal from several things. Imagine a chart with a line that curves, then shoots straight up, then goes back down, then evens out, and then curves again. This is how healing works. The reason healing is like this is because we can’t control when traumatic experiences may occur or when someone’s shirt will remind us of a boyfriend who passed in a freak accident. There will be reminders of our trauma as we live on, and we have to learn to be okay with this because we can’t control it.

Unfortunately, you may never understand why something happened or why it had to be as painful as it was. And unfortunately, some wounds stay open some. You can heal open wounds completely or some by accepting that which you can’t change. What’s important and vital is that you take time to feel the emotions associated with the healing process. That you acknowledge them, and after you’ve sat with them, that you get up and keep going.

5. Engage in physical activity

Regular physical activity not only improves your quality of life and physique, it can decrease depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, and other symptoms of postraumatic stress. Think of healing as not only a mental process but a holistic process that involves your mind, body, and soul.

6. Spend time in nature

Nature has major healing benefits as long as you feel safe in the environment. Spending time in nature can lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduce nervous system arousal, enhance immune system function, increase self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and improve mood. It can also reduce feelings of isolation, promote calm, and lift moods.

7. Build a spiritual practice

While not everyone is into buddha or other entities, building a spiritual practice can benefit you in some ways including making you feel connected in the world and with others. It can also help you feel calm and in control of your life, while enabling you to feel gratitude for life and empathy for others.

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