What Is Trauma?
A trauma can occur when a person experiences a threat that is so frightening that the person’s defensive system (fight, flight, or freeze) is activated and gets stuck. When the defensive response gets stuck, it doesn’t turn off. Even small reminders of the event can initiate an involuntary defensive response and feelings of anxiety that are similar to the response at the time of the past event.
There are big-T traumas that are unpredictable, and threaten a person’s survival. These experiences are such things as combat in war, physical assaults, natural disaster, accidents. There are also little-T traumas that are more unique to the person. They occur when something happens that the person can’t process, i.e., can’t make sense of.
The traumatized person’s physical and emotional response is stuck in the past, while his or her thinking and understanding may be grounded in the present. When this happens, a person may be unable to feel safe, despite knowing that he or she is indeed in a safe place. It can be accompanied by tension held in the body that just never goes away. As a result, the traumatized person loses the ability to know what relaxed and safe feels like.
What Is The First Step In Getting “Unstuck?”
The traumatized person must learn how to feel relaxed and safe. This is very difficult because any reminder of the event in which the person is stuck triggers a strong defensive feeling of being unsafe. Often the person is not aware that he or she is carrying high levels of anxiety in his or her muscles. So it is difficult for the person to even know what safe and relaxed actually feels like or how to achieve it.
There are a number of useful tools that our counselors use to help people learn about the sensations of safety. Mindfulness meditation, focus on breathing slowly and deeply, and visualization are but a few.
The traumatized person must be able learn to remain relaxed and feel safe in the face of the recurring distress from the original events. Only then can he or she step back from the experience cognitively and begin to process it rationally.