Trauma is a deeply distressing experience that overwhelms our ability to cope and leaves lasting imprints on our minds and bodies. When faced with trauma, our minds and nervous systems respond in various protective ways. It is a common misconception that one can only experience trauma if they have been to war, or have been abused in some way. On the contrary, trauma is a universal human experience. With the publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Third Edition (DSM-III) in 1980, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD was officially recognized as a mental health condition, but is is now understood that one does not need a diagnosis of PTSD in order to experience trauma symptoms or need help from a professional. Modern theories of trauma have greatly expanded our understanding of what causes trauma and who experiences it. The short answer is: Everyone experiences trauma.

Trauma is highly subjective. What is traumatic to one person may or may not be traumatic to another person. What is more important to recognize in trauma treatment is that everyone’s experience of trauma. no matter the situation, is valid. Trauma responses can occur in any number of situations in which one feels threatened, frightened, anxious, out of control, or hurt in some way. The flight-fight-freeze-fawn response is triggered and the person experiences trauma.

Historically people have understood that soldiers, particularly those deployed in war zones, are a highest risk for trauma-related disorders. In modern times we understand that many other human experiences can be traumatizing as well. Other risk factors for trauma include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Physical, verbal, sexual, or emotional abuse by a person in authority over you, a family member or friend
  • Ongoing family and/or relationship conflict
  • Having a family member incarcerated
  • Experiencing a natural disaster
  • Drug use or being exposed to drug use, including alcoholism
  • Chronic poverty, racism, food scarcity, exposure to gun violence, or low socio-economic status
  • Birth or pregnancy-related trauma
  • Medical trauma (including high involvement with the medical system at a young age)
  • Experiencing the death, especially the traumatic or prolonged death, of a loved one

In this blog post, we will explore the different trauma responses, the impact they have on our lives, and strategies for healing and finding resilience in the aftermath of trauma.

Understanding Trauma Responses

Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn: When confronted with trauma, our responses can be categorized into four main types:

  • Fight: Some individuals respond to trauma with anger, aggression, or a strong desire to assert control and resist the threat.
  • Flight: Others experience an intense urge to escape or avoid the traumatic situation, seeking safety and refuge.
  • Freeze: Many people enter a state of immobilization, feeling paralyzed, helpless, or disconnected from their surroundings.
  • Fawn: Some individuals may exhibit a response of appeasement or submission, attempting to please others and avoid conflict.

Hyperarousal and Hypoarousal: Trauma responses can also manifest as heightened states of arousal (hyperarousal) or numbing and dissociation (hypoarousal). Hyperarousal may include increased anxiety, irritability, hypervigilance, and difficulty sleeping. Hypoarousal, on the other hand, can involve feeling emotionally numb, disconnected, or experiencing memory gaps.

Impact of Trauma Responses

Trauma responses, although adaptive in the face of danger, can have long-lasting effects on our well-being:

  1. Physical and Emotional Health: Unresolved trauma responses can contribute to chronic health issues such as headaches, digestive problems, and autoimmune disorders. Emotional consequences may include anxiety disorders, depression, substance abuse, and difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships.
  2. Self-Identity and Belief Systems: Trauma can shape our self-perception and belief systems. Survivors may struggle with feelings of shame, guilt, or a diminished sense of self-worth. Negative core beliefs, such as “I am not safe” or “I am unworthy,” can emerge and impact daily functioning.
  3. Relational Patterns: Trauma responses can influence our interpersonal dynamics. Survivors may have difficulties with trust, boundaries, intimacy, and struggle with forming healthy connections or may engage in self-sabotaging behaviors in relationships.

Healing and Resilience

  1. Seek Support: It is important to reach out for support from trusted friends, family members, or mental health professionals. Sharing your experience can help validate your emotions and provide a safe space for healing.
  2. Therapy and Trauma-Informed Care: Engage in therapy with a trained professional who specializes in trauma. Trauma-informed approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and somatic experiencing, can help process traumatic memories and regulate the nervous system.
  3. Self-Care and Stress Reduction: Prioritize self-care activities that promote relaxation, such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or engaging in hobbies that bring joy. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and sufficient sleep are also crucial for overall well-being.
  4. Building Resilience: Explore resilience-building practices like cultivating a support network, practicing gratitude, engaging in positive affirmations, and developing coping skills that promote emotional regulation.
  5. Psychoeducation: Educate yourself about trauma and its effects. Understand that your responses are adaptive and not a sign of weakness. Learning about trauma can empower you to reframe your experiences and cultivate self-compassion.

Trauma responses are the mind and body’s way of protecting itself in the face of overwhelming experiences. However, these responses can have lasting effects on our lives if left unaddressed. By understanding the various trauma responses and their impact, and reaching out for support when needed, we can embark on a healing journey that promotes resilience, restores well-being, and fosters a sense of empowerment. Remember, healing takes time, patience, and support, but it is possible to reclaim your life and find a path towards growth and recovery.

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