The best definition of trauma I have found in my research is this:
Trauma is an impact to the mind, emotions and body that occurs as a result of distressing events. Trauma is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope, or integrate the emotions involved in that experience.
We don’t have to have experienced a big dramatic event to have been impacted by trauma. Trauma happens when you experience something and your brain is not able to make sense of it in the moment. If this trauma is not dealt with and helped through, then it can affect your everyday life.
There are big T Traumas like sexual or physical abuse, abandonment of a parent, divorce or alcoholism. Traumas don’t just happen in childhood. Adults being in war zones, going through a very destructive divorce or rape are all (big T) Traumatic experiences that affects us in our everyday life, when they haven’t been dealt with.
There are also small t traumas that impacts our lives that are more subtle. Maybe you are thinking, I haven’t been sexually abused or been in a war zone, so surely, I haven’t experienced any trauma. Well, parents can have the best of intentions and be loving, yet didn’t quite fully meet the needs you needed as a child. For example, if you are a sensitive child needing a lot of space and being shy, your well-meaning parents may have wanted you to be around many people but that didn’t feel safe or good for you. A parent who is not supportive, denies your reality or makes you feel not seen or heard, can also cause trauma. Trauma is also if you are taught that it wasn’t ok to have or express your feelings. Or having a parent who cannot regulate their emotions or focuses only on appearance or overcompensates for what they felt they were missing in their childhood.
Trauma also happens in adulthood with difficult life experiences like challenging relationships or being bullied at work. Or experience anything that was just too much to process.
Trauma in childhood
When trauma is experienced in childhood, often, there is no one around to help you make sense of a situation. Your brain then stores this information for later and doesn’t process the emotions in a healthy and releasing manner. The consequence is that whenever something happens in your life that reminds you of this situation (this can be a smell or sound or similar experience) and your body goes into fight and flight mode. In other words, it turns on the stress response. Your brain doesn’t know that this is something that happened in the past and that you are actually safe now. Your body reacts as if the danger is happening now, i.e. you have been triggered. Unfortunately, more often than not, we don’t know this is happening and instead we think there is something wrong with us.
Furthermore, when you experience trauma as a child, and there was no one there to help you deal with it, your nervous system doesn’t learn to regulate itself. This means that it doesn’t know how to turn itself off when a potential danger has passed and is therefore turned on all the time. This can lead to chronic stress and various health issues. As an adult, you may not even realise that your nervous system is turned on constantly, because it becomes part of your “normal”, so it can be useful to exam whether your trauma shows up in other areas of your life.
Where does trauma show up?
When your stress response is turned on all the time, it’s only a matter of time before your body gets completely exhausted. Therefore, people with chronic fatigue or low energy could have undealt trauma stuck in the body. It can also show up as other chronic health issues, like adrenal fatigue or fibromyalgia.
People suffering from anxiety and panic attacks often have unresolved childhood trauma. It is difficult to feel relaxed when growing up in a world that is not safe. Trauma can also show up someone being highly sensitive. Someone being very delicate and sensitive to sounds, lights or movement. These people are generally affected more by things than others.
Furthermore, trauma can show up as relationship issues, like someone who is needy and always in co-dependent relationships, usually someone who can’t be alone. It can also go the other way and they build a wall around them and have difficulties maintaining long-term relationships.
Trauma can show up as physical symptoms like migraine, headaches, IBS, digestive issues, muscles pain. When emotional pain is not processed as emotional pain, often it becomes stored as physical pain.
Many trauma survivors have issues with sleep and addiction like drugs, alcohol, smoking, sugar and so on. It can also show up as a little bit of everything and flair up in different situations and different periods of your life. Trauma can show up in almost any area of our life where we end up out of balance or living in a way which is unhealthy, uncaring and unsupportive towards ourselves.
Can childhood trauma affect your parenting?
When we can’t be caring and supportive towards ourselves how can be caring and supportive towards our children? Children don’t do as they are told, they do what they see. So much of parenting is to model the behaviour you would like to see in your children. Children are also incredibly intuitive and can sense when something or someone is not in balance. They often don’t understand this imbalance and start acting out.
Other than children sensing when something is off, adult survivors of childhood trauma often develop a number of unhealthy coping mechanisms to get through day to day life, that can impact on their child’s life.
When you haven’t learnt how to process emotions in a healthy manner, they can seem quite scary as an adult. You may try to mask feeling anything by binge eating, excess unhealthy foods or alcohol.
Other people need to keep busy all the time. Constantly doing something all the time and never slowing down. All in service of not dealing with what is going on inside. Other coping styles are addictions, like drugs, too much sugar, too much work, too much exercise, too much alcohol or too much of anything, really. Again, all not to be able to feel or removing a bad feeling, to not feel the actual feeling.
Another coping mechanism is anger, blame and shame. It is definitely not our fault that you have experienced any kind of trauma, however it is your responsibility how you react to it. It is very easy to react out of anger, because what happened is not fair or to blame the world for feeling bad. It is easy to think that you cannot control your emotions. Once you understand why you are angry and you learn to show yourself compassion, you will be much better equipped to deal with whatever comes at you. When you can create the safe world around that you need, you will be better able to deal with your emotions.
All of these unhealthy coping mechanisms or beliefs about yourself are hopefully not behaviours you want to pass on to your children. Remember that children do as they see, not as they are told. Fact is, that if you do not deal with your trauma and trauma response, you will, whether you want to or not, pass it on to your children.
Unprocessed trauma and stuck emotions will undoubtedly affect your parenting.
Healthy relationship with our emotions – what does it look like?
If you grew up in an unstable home where there was no room for your emotions, it is only natural that you don’t know what a healthy relationship with emotions looks like.
When we’re not using any of the unhealthy coping mechanisms explained above to deal with our feelings, what does a healthy relationship look like? When we’re not defending, avoiding, distracting, blaming, somatizing or analysing our emotions, what does it look like then?
First of all, we don’t shy off from feeling our emotions. We feel them like a wave in the ocean. Feelings come and go. We can get angry, sad or happy and then it ebbs out and becomes something else. There’s a flow.
Next, feeling our emotions is not a card blanche to explode our emotions out to anyone and try to transfer them onto someone else. Your emotions are yours and yours to deal with. At the same time, someone else’s emotions are their emotions and not yours to carry. Especially for sensitive people it is very easy to sponge up other people’s emotions and carry them as your own. If this sounds like you, it can be very helpful to visualize releasing the energy that doesn’t belong to you and giving it back to earth. Do this at least once per day.
Furthermore, you can respond to different contexts. It is not helpful to express hurt emotions in the middle of a serious business meeting. That doesn’t mean you can’t get upset in a meeting, but it means that there are more appropriate ways of showing emotion in a professional way.
Finally, healthy relationships with your emotions is about learning to set healthy boundaries. Knowing what you are willing to tolerate and what you aren’t can have a massive impact on how you deal with your internal self. Increasing awareness about yourself, goes a long way.