Understanding Trauma

Trauma may be defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing incident.  Individuals experience trauma in different ways and what may be traumatic for one person may not have the same impact on another.  What is important is recognising and acknowledging our own trauma to realise and learn to accept past traumatic incidences.  Acceptance does not mean we are saying that what happened was okay but it is about learning to move forward.

Trauma Informed Care has become a more commonly used phrase within caring professions.  Schools and workplaces are becoming more aware of responsibilities to offer psychological supports to patrons.  Understanding trauma may begin with self-reflection and an understanding of trauma.  It may help to consider the following types of trauma to strengthen one’s own understanding of trauma.

  1. Individual trauma or collective trauma can occur when a traumatic event occurs. In 2020 there was a global collective trauma with the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic.  Everyone heard similar messages globally about this event, however the impact of this event was different for everyone due to our individual experiences and coping skills.
  2. Complex or repetitive trauma may occur in repeated or compounded negative experiences. Circumstances involving domestic violence, childhood abuse, severe bullying can be repetitive examples of these.
  3. Single incident trauma occurs when a once off event causes us great distress. Incidences such as accidents or robberies may be considered single incident traumas.
  4. Developmental trauma may be a complex trauma from our childhood when neglect/abuse or exposure to distressing events occurred as a child.
  5. Vicarious Trauma is a secondary trauma that is experienced by individuals and professionals supporting other traumatised people.  Since the Covid pandemic and the Ukraine war there is greater societal understanding of this and the need to care for the carers of families displaced by war and indeed all carers.
  6. Historic or intergenerational trauma occurs with individuals who are cared for by traumatised people or communities. In Ireland the Magdalene Laundries are an example of an institution that effected thousands of men, women, and children.  As those affected largely did not have support to process the trauma this trauma may have impacted on future generations’ emotional wellbeing.

Recognising trauma responses

One of the first steps to recovery from trauma, regardless of the type of trauma experienced is acknowledging that the trauma occurred, and that support is needed.  Support can begin with self-compassion and self-care.  Self-compassion allows us to seek answers and build resilience in a non-judgemental and supportive way.  When a trauma occurs, we can react in various ways.  If we notice our responses and become more self-aware we can work on changing how we respond to trauma.

The fight, flight, freeze or fawn response refers to our physiological reaction when we feel threatened. This response occurs to keep us safe and prepare to face (fight), escape(flight), hide (freeze) or try and please others (fawn) to support us to lessen the impact of the threat.

Consider some of the follow to explore your trauma responses:

How do you react when threatened, are there themes to how you respond to upsetting situations?

What have you learnt from past traumatic experiences?

Who do you go to (if anyone) for support and what support do you offer to yourself?

How may you want your self-care to develop to prepare you for future upsets?

Do you experience strong reactions to people or events (also known as triggers) and do these remind you of past events?

The role of therapy

It may be useful to remind the reader at this point that any of the above traumas experienced are unique to everyone and everyone can learn new coping skills.  The above serves as a basic overview of traumatic experiences and it is not exhaustive, as we are all unique.

Psychotherapy supports the individual to make connections with past events, make sense of past traumatic experiences and to work on finding a way forward.  Various longitudinal studies have shown the negative impact that early childhood trauma may have on individuals when they were not supported to recover from traumatic experiences.  The psychotherapist supports the individual to work with their ‘inner child’, which essentially means working through past childhood pain to heal the present.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our happiness” (Victor Frankl, in Pattokos, 2008).  The past may be impacting on the present but with new coping skills it does not determine our future.  If this article resonates with you perhaps therapy may be beneficial to process past experiences for personal growth to move forward.    Niamh Lambe works with clients from a trauma informed perspective, which is client led with a gentle approach to the work.













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