A traumatic event is a highly distressing event that leaves us feeling powerless. We experience trauma when an event:
- Was unexpected
- Overwhelmed our abilities to cope
- We had no choice
- There was nothing we could do to stop it from happening
- We struggle to integrate or make sense of the experience
- Leads to feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, a diminished sense of self and a limited range of feelings.
Put simply, traumatic events threaten our sense of survival. Our main goal is to stay alive and feel safe. So, when a trauma occurs we feel fundamentally unsafe.
There are several types of trauma but let me simply distinguish between two common types of trauma that bring people into counselling.
The first is a shock trauma. These are intense and acute experiences that involve too much, too fast, too soon – too much to make sense of it, too fast to stop it from happening and too soon if it happens when you are too young to comprehend. Shock traumas can include experiencing or witnessing a:
- physical assault
- drug overdose
- acts of war
- near drowning
- natural disaster
- invasive medical procedure
- car crash
- domestic violence
The second is relational trauma, which is often ongoing abuse or neglect or inadequate care that slowly erodes your sense of being safe. While relational trauma can occur in adulthood, children are far more susceptible to the impacts due to their dependency on the adults who are supposed to care for them.
Relational trauma can take many forms but it can include:
- emotional abuse
- physical abuse
- sexual abuse
- attachment disruptions
- extreme poverty
- witnessing violence or abuse
- emotional abandonment or enmeshment
Whether it is a shock trauma or relational trauma, both can lead to struggles with stress, interpersonal relationships, substance abuse, sleep and appetite and focus.
Many times we can experience a traumatic event and recover from it quite quickly. Other times we may experience acute difficulties in our emotions, our sleep and eating, our social interactions and our memories of the event. This is called acute stress disorder. Again, many times we recover naturally from acute stress disorder within about a month.
However, when the symptoms last beyond a month and seriously interfere with our quality of life and our ability to function we may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
PTSD symptoms are grouped into the following four clusters: intrusive memories, hyper vigilance, avoidance and negative thoughts and emotions. Let’s break it down a little bit.
Sometimes after a traumatic event, memories of the event flood into our minds unexpectedly in the form of flashbacks or nightmares. At times it can feel as if the event is happening again and we can feel very much as if we are re-experiencing it. These are called intrusive memories. We can feel like we have very little control over ourselves.
It is little wonder, then, that after a trauma, we put all of our resources into safety and survival and there is little left over for joy, pleasure, sexuality, curiosity, laughter and relationships.
At the same time our minds and bodies want to do everything possible to keep us away from anything similar to the traumatic event. They can go into a state of high alert called hyper vigilance.
From this heightened state, the mind is constantly scanning for threat and risk and danger. Because your body and mind want to protect you and are in high alert, they associate all sorts of sensory information with a sense of danger. These are called triggers. Some of these associations will be accurate. For example, if you were mugged at gunpoint on a rainy night, you are accurate to associate guns with danger. But it may not be accurate to associate rainy nights with danger.
This can lead you to start avoiding any situations, people, memories or emotions that remind you of the traumatic event, even when you know it is not an accurate assessment. This can lead to feelings of shame, embarrassment, self-doubt and other patterns of negative thinking.
Putting it all together – intrusions, hyper vigilance, avoidance and negative thinking – and we can very easily fall into negative moods such as irritability, depression and numbness.
I work with PTSD using Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) and Prolonged Exposure (PE), two highly researched and effective treatment protocols.
Shame is what keeps you from believing that you are worthy. It keeps you small. It keeps you convinced that if I really got to know you I would reject you. It tells you that you are fundamentally flawed, broken, undeserving and unlovable.
Shame attacks your sense of self, your identity. It tells you “you are a bad person” when you do something you wish you had not done. It robs you of peace and destroys your motivation.
I offer a 6-8 session course in shame resilience. We explore the ways that you experience shame, the ways your body reacts, the stories you tell yourself and then practice ways to face your shame and bring acceptance to all parts of yourself.
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