What is it to be traumatised?

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Clients often report feeling fraudulent entering therapy, stating that they had a happy childhood and no significant traumas in their life to date. In their mind, it is they who are fully responsible for their ongoing depression or anxiety. We tend to think of traumatic events as those extremes we hear about in the media: rape, assault, terrorism etc. In reality, the link between trauma and a traumatized brain is less clear cut.

Life is littered with uncertainties and perceived threats, to our lives, self-esteem and confidence. In the face of such threats, some of us are simply unequipped to deal with the psychological fall out – through no fault of our own. To assume full responsibility for how we react to these events, is inaccurate and disregards all that we now know about the brain. Brain imaging has revealed our limitations as human beings to differentiate between perceived and real danger. As a result, it may be more accurate to attribute some responsibility to our innate physiology.

I prefer to use the word ‘traumatized’ in therapy rather than labeling specific events as the moment trauma occurred. This allows clients to identify behaviors, emotions and thoughts that may indicate a ‘traumatized brain’. Put simply, a traumatized mind is a ‘confused or disorganized’ mind, involuntarily firing on all cylinders and largely out-with our control due to our evolution.

A traumatized mind is separate from the traumatic event. We are not born with the skills to self-soothe in the face of danger (perceived or real). We may seek them out in infancy but there is no guarantee these needs will be met through our environment. We have to learn these skills, to enable our brain to successfully access the parasympathetic nervous system, which essentially sends in the ‘para’-troupers in times of stress to calm the flames of anxiety and fear.

We learn key nurturing skills in early childhood, largely from care givers. Given that care givers are only human, and may well be inexperienced at managing their own emotions, we may find ourselves vulnerable to developing self-compassion. This is not to say our parents or peers are to blame for our underdeveloped brains rather that it is in no way our own fault as individuals for getting trapped in a traumatized mindset.

The good news is, no matter how traumatized our brains may be, brain imaging has shown that these key nurturing skills can be learnt at any age with the help of psycho-education and/or appropriate psychotherapy. Schema Therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Psychoanalysis and Mindfulness all offer ways to calm the traumatized mind and gain essential self-regulatory skills.

It might be useful to consider the mindset that is engaged in the face of danger for you personally? Remember, our brains may be limited by insufficient development, but they are also extremely flexible, allowing new neural pathways to develop and arming us with more efficient and effective skills. A traumatic event can never be eradicated from our memories but we can significantly re-wire how our brains relate to these memories.