The Impact of Trauma
What is Trauma?
Trauma is an unbearable and intolerable unexpected experience, event, or series of events that threatens the life, safety, well-being, and health of an individual (van der kolk, 2015). For many years, the classic definition of trauma has been linked to combat soldiers or victims of sexual assault. More recently, more people are coming forward with experiences of trauma that are not isolated to war or sexual violence. Other subjective experiences of trauma may include, but are not limited to, car accidents, weather disasters, life-limiting illness, emotional abuse or bullying, unwanted sexual experience, civil displacement and immigration. Trauma exposure is not limited to a direct experience (e.g., personally happened); it may also include witnessing an event, learning about it, or experiencing it as part of your job. Trauma is far reaching and does not only affect the person directly exposed to it, but also those around them. Partners of those with PTSD, children of traumatized parents, or parents of children that have been traumatized are also impacted.
What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?
PTSD is a clinical psychiatric disorder with a specific set of symptoms that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous traumatic event. It is important to note that not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops PTSD. Approximately 20% of people who have been exposed to trauma will go one to develop full or partial PTSD; women are more likely than men to experience PTSD. PTSD is not linked to socio-economic status and distribution of PTSD prevalence rates have shown to be equal across all education levels, income strata, and employment status. People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. They may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares; they may feel sadness, fear or anger; and they may feel detached or estranged from other people. People with PTSD may avoid situations or people that remind them of the traumatic event, and they may have strong negative reactions to something as ordinary as a loud noise or an accidental touch. For a person to be diagnosed with PTSD, however, symptoms last for more than a month and often persist for months and sometimes years. Sometimes PTSD can be effectively healed and treated, and then be re-trigged many years later. Many individuals develop symptoms within three months of the trauma, but symptoms may also appear much later (APA, 2015). There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done to fully understand the nature of PTSD.
PTSD Symptoms Include:
•Re-experiencing symptoms & intrusive thoughts (e.g., unwanted memories, flashbacks, nightmares)
•Avoidance symptoms (e.g., avoiding people or places)
•Arousal and reactivity symptoms (e.g., startle, “on guard”)
•Cognition and mood symptoms (e.g., memory, self-blame)
Complex Trauma is repetitive, prolonged, or cumulative exposure to trauma. It is most often interpersonal, involving direct harm, exploitation, and maltreatment including neglect/abandonment/antipathy by primary caregivers or other ostensibly responsible adults, and often occurs at developmentally vulnerable times in the victim's life, especially in childhood or adolescent, but can also occur later in life and in conditions of vulnerability associated with disability/disempowerment/dependency/age/infirmity (Courtois, 2014).
A target population at risk of unresolved symptoms of trauma is Canadian young adults, aged 18-34 years. Over 70% of all mental health problems appear before the age of 25, and among Canadian adults, the 18-34 year age span is the most likely age-strata for diagnosable mental health disorders, substance misuse, and suicide. One possible explanation could be the presence of unresolved and untreated childhood exposure to trauma, particularly physical and sexual abuse (See Fig. 1). Unresolved trauma can lead to impaired social, occupational, physical and emotional functioning and is linked with an increased risk of chronic disease across the lifespan. We believe that intervening in safe, supportive, and gentle ways early in young adulthood may help prevent a host of maladaptive behaviours and related chronic conditions from emerging across the lifespan.
Developmental trauma is experienced through chronic emotional, psychological, physical or sexual abuse and/or extreme poverty throughout childhood, spanning critical stages of development. As of 1997, statistics indicated that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men in the U.S. had been sexually abused before the age of eighteen and that between 75 and 100 million Americans had experienced childhood sexual and/or physical abuse.
Figure 1. Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html
Traumatic experiences encode in the mind and body. Trauma impacts our emotions, imprints on our capacity to experience joy and intimacy, and imprints on our biology, physiology and immune systems. Trauma has typically been researched as an emotional experience, however, it is predominantly a physiological response. Common physiological responses to trauma include the body becoming frozen/immobile, an inability to breathe regularly, an inability to speak, severe panic/fear, and disconnecting from the body or feeling numb. The body responds this way to help us survive the trauma by protecting us from feeling or even remembering the traumatic event. Due to the extreme physiological experience of trauma, a cellular imprint becomes encoded in the physical body as a trauma memory. Many people with unresolved and untreated trauma may continue on for years with no knowledge or awareness of this physical imprint, however, it may eventually manifest in some physical or emotional capacity such as recurring pain, chronic headaches, gastrointestinal discomfort, autoimmune disorders and possibly chronic disease.
A key feature of individuals with PTSD is sustained over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), known as our "fight or flight system", which includes symptoms such as elevated blood pressure, rapid heart rate, heightened arousal (i.e., feeling "on guard" or quick to startle). A common experience of people who have been traumatized is the instinctual feeling that they are unsafe. This leads to the experience of being on constant alert, as if the danger or threat were about to happen at any given moment, even if it occurred many months, or even years ago. Prolonged activation of of the SNS has been linked to comorbidities including obesity, type II diabetes mellitus, cardiometabolic disorders, and all-cause mortality. When an individual primarily operates in "fight or flight" mode, it becomes increasingly difficult to return to a state of homeostasis or balance. Chronic hyperarousal or stress leads to a whole host of challenging symptoms ranging anywhere from headaches to chronic pain, to depressed mood and stomach upset.
Somatic sensory awareness including physical movement, breath awareness, and mind-body connection is a critical component of releasing the traumatic energetic imprint to avoid adverse physical symptoms as a result of chronic dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system. The purpose of our program is to help individuals restore a sense of wholeness to the mind and body by addressing the physical release of trauma. We help clients learn to reconnect to their body in safe and compassionate ways to help rebuild self-regulation of the autonomic nervous system by learning simple tools and strategies on how to move away from "Flight or Fight" and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, our "rest and digest" system.
American Psychological Association. (2017). Clinical Practice Guideline for the Treatment of PTSD in Adults. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/ptsd.pdf
Courtois, C. (2014). Understanding Complex Trauma, Complex Reactions, and Treatment Approaches. Retrieved from http://www.giftfromwithin.org/html/cptsd-understanding-treatment.html
Firestone, L. (2018). Recognizing Complex Trauma. Educating ourselves on the after-effects of repetitive or cumulative trauma. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/compassion-matters/201207/recognizing-complex-trauma
National Institutes of Health. (2016). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml
Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score. New York: Viking.