Survival after Trauma
One of the most common reasons to seek counselling is to learn how to regulate emotions. I frequently hear from clients that they have been struggling to manage their emotions and how that is affecting their relationships, job or some other area of their life. There is often guilt associated with the inability to manage emotions and the subsequent impact it has on relationships. You’re not your best self when your emotions are unsettled. This is what ultimately motivates most people to seek help.
Despite the wider acceptance of mental health challenges, there continues to be internalized stigma associated with having emotional difficulties. People feel ashamed of their emotional challenges. I often hear clients use words like “crazy,” “basket case,” or “broken” to describe themselves. It is important to note that in many cases the difficulties people have in regulating their emotions is a side effect of trauma, and often developed as a protection or survival mechanism.
Let’s start by defining trauma. Trauma is the emotional and physiological reaction you have after experiencing a distressing event. It results from exposure to events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening. A few examples of traumatic events are adverse childhood experiences, infidelity, motor vehicle accidents, domestic violence, and job loss. Trauma can arise from anything that has a significant enough impact on you.
It is said that how the brain processes information changes after experiencing a traumatic incident, especially those parts of the brain that are responsible for detecting danger. After trauma, the brain, and body, subsequently, become hypersensitive to perceived danger and sometimes detect danger even when it isn’t present. This is your brain’s way of “learning” and trying to ensure you don’t get hurt again. So, it’s very possible that the next time you have an adverse reaction, it may be due to the development of this survival mechanism. Instead of judging yourself, perhaps ask what might have happened to you that would explain why you are reacting in this manner. It may simply be your brain’s attempts to protect you and help you survive after trauma.
Some common reactions/behaviors that help us survive after trauma are:
- Hypervigilance or mistrust:
You are constantly on the lookout for dangerous situations. In social situations this may play out as a general mistrust for people and assuming they are out to get you. In relationships, you may be doubtful of your partner, friend or family member and hold the belief that they will hurt you.
- Anxious or Avoidant Attachment:
In romantic relationships, trauma can appear in how you interact with your partner. You may feel intensely anxious and need constant reassurance from them when they are away from you, or you may be highly avoidant to keep a safe distance from them when they are too close to you. They say that how we attach to our partners is similar to the attachment relationship we had with our parents. Therefore, if your parents were overly critical, overly involved, too distant or inconsistent in their parenting, you may mirror similar behaviours with your partner.
- Emotional numbing:
Imagine walking through life with a sharp object poking you in the foot. It would be difficult to function if you were in constant pain. When emotions are too painful to bear, the body shuts them down. There are many ways that we engage in emotional numbing. Substance use, shopping, sex, excessively working, binge eating, and binge watching tv are some examples that we engage in emotional numbing. Pushing down heavy emotions, ignoring difficult situations, and being overly optimistic are also ways we numb emotions and ignore our present reality.
- Self-destructive behaviours:
These are behaviours that cause us harm. Some examples are personal put-downs/self-criticism, engaging in self-sabotaging behaviour, self-harm e.g. cutting, burning, and engaging in risky behaviours, heavy use of drugs and alcohol, and engaging in unprotected sex. Sometimes the emotions that we feel when we have experienced trauma (e.g., rage, anger, hurt, pain) are so strong that we crave something to help numb them. For some people, engaging in self-destructive behaviors like self-harm provides a distraction from their emotional pain or may be as a result of them treating themselves the same way they are used to others treating them (e.g., calling themselves hurtful names).
- Disproportionate reactivity:
As mentioned above, how the brain processes danger becomes skewed after experiencing trauma. When difficult things happen, the brain may over-exaggerate the potential for harm. As a result, you may have a disproportionately intense reaction to something relatively small. It’s like going for a hike when you know a bear was spotted there not too long ago. Every ruffle and snap feels scary. Your startle and fight/flight reflexes become much more sensitive, and you jump at the smallest sign of danger. In real life, this could look like panicking when someone doesn’t respond to your texts immediately, wanting to quit your job because you received negative feedback, or accusing your partner of cheating on you because they were talking to someone of the opposite sex.
In order to heal from trauma, it is necessary to practice self-compassion. Instead of shaming yourself for your unhealthy reactions, approach yourself with kindness and understanding. Remember that you did not choose to experience trauma and that your body is doing what it is designed to do, i.e., keep you safe and alive.