About Trauma

Do I have trauma?

This can be a difficult and confronting question.


It can be very challenging to realise that we may have suffered one or more traumatic events, and may have some traumatized and distressed inner children. 
I suggest keeping an open mind as you read on, and being as kind to yourself as possible if difficult feelings come up. If you start to feel overwhelmed, stop reading and come back at another time, or contact me for support and advice. It’s really important not to retraumatize yourself.


We may or may not remember traumatic events. Sometimes there have been such events in our lives, but we have lost touch with the distressing emotions, and think of the events as just another life experience. Sometimes the events themselves have been pushed into unconsciousness, so we have lost touch not only with the emotions but also the memories themselves. This is especially true of early traumas.


But whether or not we remember, we will likely experience a number of difficult emotions. 
We may feel depressed or hopeless. We may be self critical, feeling worthless and ashamed. We may be fearful, experiencing anxiety or panic attacks, or being easily startled. We may be mistrustful and 

suspicious of life and of others. We may be easily angered or frustrated, and feel impulses to hurt ourselves or others. We may find it difficult to stay still, always jiggling or busy. We may feel detached, as though our life is unreal. We may find touch uncomfortable or aversive, and have problems with relationships. We may find it difficult to have appropriate boundaries, being either too accommodating or too rigid. We may have recurring dreams with a sense of doom or impending danger. We may notice that we have a pattern of reactions to everyday events, people or places which are much more distressing than seems warranted. We may have ongoing employment difficulties. We may have chronic illness, especially autoimmune conditions, or been told that we have symptoms of PTSD.


If we do remember a traumatic event, it may be in a recurring, distressing way. We may be unable to stop thinking about it, and have flashbacks where it seems to be happening all over again. We may feel distress when events similar to the event occur and we may actively avoid anything to do with that event, including people, places, activities, objects and situations.


There are of course many reasons other than traumatic events to experience some of these difficulties. But if you recognise in yourself many items on this list, then it’s possible that you have been traumatized at some point and could benefit from the healing of therapy.

How trauma arises

There are two conditions that must occur together to create trauma:

  • being involved in a life threatening event
  • feeling completely alone in that event

It’s important to understand that an event may or may not appear life threatening from the outside. What matters is that the person involved experiences that their life is in immediate danger. And in the midst of this terror for their life, there is absolutely no-one to rescue, protect or understand them.  
This creates enormous fear. It sends the adrenals into overdrive, pumping out adrenaline and cortisol.


These hormones are designed to give us the energy to get out of harm’s way by fighting or fleeing. If we are actually able to do either or both, we often escape being permanently traumatized by the life threatening event.


But what often happens is that fight or flight is not possible, and instead we freeze, which is the third instinctual response to a threat to our life. This freezing strategy makes sense when we consider that a predator may lose interest in “dead” prey, walk away, and inflict less damage. One thing abuse survivors often say is that they did not fight back because they believed that it would have made the abuse worse, which can certainly happen. For example, when a woman flees an abusive relationship, it is very likely that her abuser will pursue her, and if he finds her, he will significantly increase the abuse.


So what typically happens when we are involved in a traumatic event is that we are left with an overload of adrenal hormones and no way to physically release that energy. We are left with great fear that the trauma could reoccur at any moment, so the adrenals do not go back to baseline levels, as they normally would. This intense energy becomes trapped in our body, and the condition becomes permanent.  The freezing does not let up either, because it has been so deeply imprinted on us as a way to deal with the fear.


So the traumatized person spends a lifetime stuck between two very powerful opposing forces, the force of the adrenal hormones and the opposing imperative to stay frozen. Needless to say, this is very hard on the body and psyche. It leads to physical symptoms such as metabolic syndrome, autoimmune disease, and adrenal fatigue, along with many psychological symptoms such as chronic fearfulness, anger, rage, suicidality and depression.

Causes of trauma

Traumatising events can take two basic forms. 


Shock trauma

This occurs when there is a single shocking event, such as an accident, hospitalisation, death of a parent, or sexual assault.


Complex trauma

Complex trauma occurs when there is a series of incidents, none of which would necessarily be traumatic on their own, but added together, eventually become traumatic.


And of course there can be a combination of the two, which often happens with abuse. 
It is relatively easy to understand being traumatized by a single shocking event, but being traumatized by a series of not-so-terrible events is not so intuitively obvious.


Let’s look at the latter with the help of a common example, attachment trauma. This is usually created when we are in infancy, and our parent, usually our mother, is emotionally misattuned or emotionally unresponsive, and unable to bond with us in the way 

that we need. For whatever reason she may be cold, inconsistent, scary or absent. While any one instance of misattunement is not generally harmful, when it happens over and over again for the whole of childhood, it creates a persistent fear in us that since mother does not seem to love us or be bonded with us, we will be abandoned, and will not survive. 
So we find ourselves emotionally abandoned in what feels like the life threatening situation of being far too young to care for ourselves.


This might seem like an extreme reaction until we remember that until very recently in human history, an abandoned child did indeed starve to death or become a meal for the next hungry predator.


Most complex trauma is created in childhood by parents who are not able to give us what we need to feel loved, heard, seen, respected, and attuned to emotionally. Our parents may be depressed, absent, needy, misattuned, self-absorbed, angry, overly critical, seductive, mentally ill or abusive. Or they may be good people who are simply unable to give the love and attunement that a young child needs. When parents are like this over a long period of time, they tend to create trauma in their children.

Healing trauma with IFS therapy

IFS therapy is particularly effective for healing both shock and complex trauma.


Its effectiveness lies in its compassionate and completely respectful approach. 
IFS recognises that all traumatized parts of us will have very strong defenses, or protectors, that have helped us manage the overwhelming emotions of the traumatized parts for a very long time. IFS understands that we cannot function without our protectors until we have found another way to hold and heal the traumatized parts. So it is always completely respectful of our protectors, never trying to push past or override them, always hearing and respecting their concerns, and only inviting them to soften when they themselves are ready.


IFS also recognizes that the emotions held by the traumatized inner children, or exiles, can be absolutely overwhelming. We literally fear we could drown and disappear in their flood of feelings.


Since we cannot heal when we are overwhelmed, IFS has a number of methods that ensure that we get to know the traumatized exiles slowly and safely, taking as much time as needed to connect with, understand and heal the exiles. 
It may take many visits, but eventually the exiles feel securely loved and held, which is the holding they actually needed at the time of the traumatic events, and are able to relax back into their original state of openness, playfulness and joy. Then the protectors, no longer needed as defenses, can morph into true helpers for our lives.


In this gentle, methodical, safe and effective way, our trauma is healed and we find the freedom to get on with the life that we have always wanted.