This is the first installment of a summer long series designed to help break down some of the mythology and misunderstanding about emotional trauma.
The question of what constitutes an emotionally “traumatic” event has been debated in personal and professional circles for many years. War, rape and serious car accidents are prime examples of what people tend to think of as traumatic events. Fortunately, researchers have concluded that the event itself is less important than a person’s experience of the event. Two people can experience the same event and one is left with symptoms of trauma while the other seems to heal and move on. A typical response to this information might be to conclude that the person who is left feeling traumatized is weak while the one who moves on is emotionally strong. If only it were this simple. Actually, the ingredients that go into the recipe for a post trauma reaction are quite complex. How the people in your life respond to you is huge. If the people around you are understanding and supportive, they believe you and help you, you are less likely to have long lasting effects. Of course, the opposite is true as well. Having had a difficult or abusive childhood or experiencing other traumatic events throughout your life are big risk factor for developing longer lasting traumatic effects as well. And, whether we like it or not, everyone’s brain works differently. Some people have more reactive emergency response systems and others do not. So strength and weakness, per se, have nothing to do with it.
Oftentimes people do not even realize that the problems in their lives are the result of left over activity in their brain from an experience that happened either long ago or that they believe they had “gotten over.” They may have come to see me to work on an anger management issue, relationship issue, anxiety, fear, phobia, panic or depression. When we begin looking into when the symptoms started and what significant events have happened in their lives, it can become clear fairly quickly that their brains are responding in a very normal way to very abnormal events in their lives. Their emergency response system is getting triggered when it shouldn’t and/or their emergency response system is stuck in the on position. Either way, the intensity of their reaction may not make any sense given the situation in front of them. They may be irritable and difficult to be around. Or, for some people, they have a hair trigger temper and they verbally scorch the people they love the most. For other people they get terrified when in the presence of something that the thinking part of the brain has no idea is a trigger, but the sensory center of the brain smelled, saw, tasted or heard something similar at the time of the traumatic event.
The good news is that treatments are now readily available to help people learn to reprocess or reboot their emergency response systems. Most of us want and need to understand what is happening inside and causing these reactions to happen.
Next week we will look at what is happening in people’s brains and why they develop certain symptoms.