Dealing with Trauma

Dealing with Trauma

Trauma is the experience of an overwhelmingly stressful event. The event disrupts a person's ability to effectively engage in their life as they once did and they become haunted by the trauma, stuck in that time. Usually, a traumatic experience involves a threat to one's life or a threat to a loved one's life. Being close to death, having all power taken away (such as in violent assault or rape), and experiencing tremendous pain or injury are types of traumatic experiences that people may face. The trouble is, a person who has been traumatised then needs to 'get back to normal'; to move on from the experience so they are no longer stuck there. How does trauma affect us and how do we overcome it?

It is critical to understand how trauma affects the brain, the mind and body. Firstly, some people will experience a traumatic incident, such as a bomb blast and be relatively okay after the initial shock. Others will experience a disorder called Acute Stress Disorder. This is the experience of shock where a person loses their normal capacity, and adrenalin overwhelms them for several weeks or months after the event has passed. They will be unable to concentrate, find it difficult to communicate easily and will also have trouble sleeping. They may cry a lot, experience anger and even feel dissociated, as if they are not in their body completely - what we may call feeling 'beside yourself'.

Additionally a person may experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is where the impact of the trauma full emerges some time after the event or may follow the initial acute stress disorder. Symptoms include flashbacks of the traumatic experience, as if it is happening again, anger and irritability, difficulty concentrating, inability to relax, insomnia, restlessness, hypervigilance and paranoia. A great sensitivity to tiggers: contextual reminders of the traumatic event, typically spark the flashbacks.

We need to understand the nature of memory and the brain to fully understand PTSD and trauma. The brain typically converts short-term memories of events that have just happened into long term memories. A part of the brain called the hippocampus, just inside the temporal lobes, is involved in relaying short-term memories to store them as long-term neutral memories that can be evoked, remembered, triggered and experienced as normal memories evoking only mild emotions. In other words the memory is processed and you are able to talk about it without becoming overwhelmed by it. A traumatic memory is unprocessed so that it evokes the same feelings of dread and life-threatening fear as experienced at the time of the trauma. Clearly, the memory intrudes upon one's sense of present reality as if feels as if the trauma is happening once again.

A good way to understand this is to think of the hippocampus as a freeway. Memories come in from fresh experiences like traffic on a freeway to get from one end to the other. The other end in this sense is the cerebral cortex and other parts of the brain where memories can be stored and normally accessed with the right retrieval cue. There is a perspective when remembering long-term memories that they happened in the past, that time has elapsed since then and the event is not happening now in the real world, just in one's imagination. With traumatic memories it is like a traffic jam occurs in the hippocampus and the memories can't be processed. Everything comes to a stand still. Additionally the person becomes very distracted as there is no room for fresh memories. Their concentration and attention becomes very poor. They will focus overly on details around them that remind them of the trauma. They become stuck and the emotions of fear over-tax the adrenal glands and cortisol and adrenalin pumps throughout the body.

This leads us to a greater awarness of trauma and also how to treat it. The major aspect of treatment involves assisting processing and re-processing of the traumatic memory in order to store the memory as a long-term memory, integrated into the stream of consciousness of the person. This is coupled with awareness that the event happened in the past and when recalled the distress is manageable; upsetting but not so overwhelming that the person cannot function in day to day life.

more to come....

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