If you have lived on this planet for longer than an hour and a half, you’ve probably experienced trauma. Because of this, each time I meet a new adult patient, I begin by asking about their life experience as a way of uncovering their traumatic experiences.
Trauma is a highly personalized thing. What is traumatic for you may not be traumatic for someone else, and vice versa. It all depends on the lens you use to see the world, a lens formed by your life experiences and genetic makeup. This lens influences not only how you see things, but how you respond to traumatic experiences–the way you interpret and understand what happened allows you to tap into and build your own resilience.
I use the metaphor of an electric shock to describe traumatic experiences. I often tell my patients that each traumatic experience has an electric charge, and that they must ground themselves in order to release it. This grounding comes in the form of integrating a traumatic experience, which allows someone to understand and manage their emotional intensity rather than having this intensity highjack their emotions and result in behaviors that leave them feeling out of control.
It’s important to note that normal responses to trauma are not the same as having post-traumatic stress disorder, including hypervigilance and/or exaggerated startle. It is when these responses become overpowering and emerge with the addition of intrusive thoughts connected to traumatic events that the person may want to seek professional help.
Hypervigilance is when you begin scanning constantly to see if something bad is about to happen. I call this “developing 360-degree vision.” Intrusive thoughts are thoughts or images that show up in response to reminders (triggers) of the traumatic event. Triggers can sometimes be hard to identify, especially when they are subconscious–like specific smells or sounds.
Exaggerated startle occurs when something unexpected happens and your nervous system responds as though you are at serious risk, such as involuntarily ducking for cover when a car door slams shut.
If you are having these symptoms and they are interfering with your daily life (and they are not related to any medication, substance use, or other illness), then you may be moving from a normal trauma response to one that might benefit from professional counseling.
I had a client who witnessed a terrible event related to someone she loved. In the months that followed, she was so upset that she stopped leaving her house for fear of experiencing a similar event. Clearly, her daily life was affected by her experience. Through counseling, she learned to manage her fear and re-engage in her life, so she could experience joy and personal connection again. In essence, she was able to ground the electric charge of her trauma and transform it.
It’s so important to have your experience validated. This can be part of the power of counseling. While well-meaning family members and friends may suggest that you let things go and stop perseverating on bad experiences that happened months or years ago, therapists trained in trauma-informed care understand that time doesn’t matter when it comes to managing trauma. If you never dealt with your experience, never grounded it, the trauma may as well have happened yesterday. Therapy can help you release the debilitating effects of your trauma.
If you’ve experienced a traumatic event and it is getting in the way of enjoying your life, consider seeking treatment. Emotional trauma can be debilitating and leave you unable to function the way you want to. Sometimes people can get secondary PTSD by repeatedly hearing about someone else’s trauma. If you’re having distressing dreams, if you no longer engage in activities you used to enjoy for fear of re-experiencing a trauma, if intrusive thoughts won’t leave you alone, it can be useful to talk to someone. Therapists who provide trauma-informed care understand the complexities of PTSD and they can work with you so you can choose how you respond to emotional triggers.
Sometimes therapists work with medical providers who can prescribe medication to reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other conditions so we can get to the heart of why the trauma is affecting you the way it is, eventually allowing you to release it. Therapists can serve as listeners and guides. As you give voice to your experience, you can begin to understand it, which can enable you to release the charge connected to the event.
I always encourage people to talk with a therapist sooner rather than later. If you reach a point where you’d like to talk about your trauma, please call me or another trauma-informed therapist. We are here to help.
Dr. Eric Emery is a primary care counselor in the Behavioral Health Department at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental, and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.