Author: Bria Wannamaker, RP.
In writing this article, I want to take some time to explain to you what trauma is and how it’s stored in the body. We experience all kinds of trauma throughout the lifespan; whether it’s a real threat to our safety, a near miss, close call, or perceived threat to our wellbeing, whether it’s something that happened today or 40 years ago.
A couple of reflection questions for you before we begin:
- Where in your life do you feel like you don’t have control?
- What are some patterns and habits in your life that you don’t like repeating?
- Ancestral trauma
- Intergenerational trauma
- Early Adulthood
If trauma is not processed AND/OR we do not have the right resources and supports in place (protective factors) then we are at risk of holding onto this trauma in the body and mind which could lead to behavioural difficulties, emotional dysregulation, difficulty in relationships, mental health concerns, difficulty with day-to-day functioning, and medically unexplained physical ailments and illnesses.
What this means is that you don’t necessarily have to sit about journal about these moments and process your trauma in each and every moment in order to move on. For example, though perhaps your mother had a stressful, traumatic, and medically challenging labour with you – if you are born into a household that is safe, where you feel like you belong, where you are loved and happy and healthy – these protective factors act as a buffer to meditate the effects of this traumatic birth. Perhaps your mother and father had extended benefits coverage and were able to seek therapy and your mother was able to get pelvic floor physiotherapy and work with their family doctor for some medication for postpartum stress. Maybe mom is able to take an extended maternity leave because her employer is flexible and dad’s income is more than enough to support the household. These supports and resources allow mom to function, dad to function, and baby to be held and supported.
But what about the family that experiences the same traumatic birth, parents are young and don’t have the support of their families, they don’t have stable careers that allow for extended healthcare benefits, mom goes back to work 3 months after baby is born. Will this child have processed the prenatal trauma? Do they have the resources and supports in place to be able to thrive? Do you think their life outcomes will be similar to the other baby described above?
Chances are, child B will have a heightened baseline of stress and anxiety in comparison to child A – what I mean by this is that if our body’s goal as mammals is to stay in homeostasis and move through acute stressors in life, child A might start off with a bit more wiggle room in terms of being able to come back down to baseline and tolerate, move through, and process stressors in life. Child B might be at a more elevated baseline with a smaller window of tolerance before thy reach the peak of their skills and abilities to cope with distress and to regulate their nervous systems.
Chronic Stress & Trauma
Many people experience early life stressors and have adverse experiences in childhood and do not process these nor do they attribute them to the accumulation of stress over time. People expect that they should be able to be resilient through anything and handle whatever life throws at them. People think that just because time has passed stress and trauma “just goes away” or that they should be over it.
“It happened years ago”
“I hate that I’m still thinking about this”
“I hate that I feel this way”
“I’m doing this to myself”
“I’m doing this to myself”
“I should have known better”
“I have it good compared to others”
“I should be grateful”
These statements are beliefs that people have developed about themselves and these beliefs reflect a level of shame and guilt in regard to not being able to move past traumatic experiences and life stressors. People feel stuck, immobilized, they feel depressed, anxious, chronically stressed, they experience constant worry and rumination, worst case scenario thinking, impulsive behaviours, and control/safety behaviours such as disordered eating, addictions, substance use, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. They tend to have all-or-nothing thinking and can jump from extreme to extreme – feeling motivated one day and having little momentum the next.
People dismiss what they are feeling and look to others to compare. Imagine child A and child B form the example above going to school together – from 2 totally different backgrounds and comparing to one another. Imagine that Child A experiences bullying at school but is able to go home and talk to mom and dad – who have received therapy in the past and they are able t connect child A with the necessary supports, they have stable careers and can take some vacation days to ensure that child A can make it to appointments and receive all of the love and support that they need.
Now, if Child B experiences bullying at school, perhaps they tell mom who is already disconnected from her Self and her resources, she works multiple jobs to make ends meet and doesn’t have the time and space to manage her own emotions, let alone hold space for the emotions of others. She is sensitive to the needs of Child B and tells them to brush it off and that it will all be OK, they are tough and can handle difficult things.
Though instilling belief in one’s ability to handle challenging situations is important, this can also be dismissive and does not equip Child B with any tools to navigate the challenging interpersonal relationships, or to process the trauma from the bullying from their peers. It is possible that Child B will build this self-perception of having to be strong and resilient and could develop a negative view of others. School could be a stressful place for Child B whose baseline level of anxiety is already quite heightened. Child B might try to cope with substance and social time, or could be extremely focused on school and driven toward perfectionism, or perhaps they channel their energy into sports, or perhaps this energy comes out as being disruptive in class and they are labelled as a “behaviour child”.
Child B sees Child A on TikTok when they are both 19 years old, Child B wonders why they can’t be more like Child A. Child B feels like a disappointment, like they’re not enough, they feel a sense of imposter syndrome when they try to create content like Child B – because they are disconnected from their true and authentic Self. As Gabor Mate says “trauma is a disconnection from your Authentic Self, it’s not what happens to you, it’s what happens inside of you when these events occur (or what you need does not occur – neglect), trauma is a wound that can be healed rather than a collection of everything bad that has happened to you.”
There are so many paths in life that both Child A and Child B could take – regardless of their upbringing and trauma. Some paths may contribute as protective factors to their overall health and wellbeing, and some may serve as risk factors for them. It is important that we are attuned to the various life circumstances that people experience and their impact on our life’s choices and decisions. REMEMBER – we are ALWAYS just trying to get into balance, into homeostasis, ALWAYS. Anything we do whether it’s seeking out social time or solitude; drugs or a dry retreat; bingeing or purging; scrolling on your phone or going on a social media cleanse; lashing out in anger or self-harming; impulsive spending or compulsive saving; hyperfocus on our physical health or neglecting our physical health; avoiding others or seeking reassurance from others.
These are ALL control behaviours – we are seeking control so that our bodies can find homeostasis. If we are chronically dysregulated then we may be more impulsive and jump from one extreme to the other as small, incremental changes tend to feel like nothing is happening when your nervous system is hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused. When we get stuck in a severe state of depression (hypo) or an intense state of anxiety (hyper), sometimes, it’s too much for our brains to handle so we begin to alter our perception of any stimuli to a sense of numbness, nothingness, apathy, or indifference. Our brains provide us with protection and safety in terms of allowing us not to feel anything. Our belief about ourselves becomes “I’m overwhelmed”, “I can’t handle anything”, “Life is chaotic”, “I’m a mess”. We shutdown, we disconnect, we retreat, we seek a thrill – anything to feel something.
How do we make our way out of these extremes?
Whether your trauma or stressor was or is big or small, real or perceived, whether it happened today or twenty-five years ago; you’re allowed to feel the way that you feel – there are biological, physiological, psychological, and social reasons why you’re stuck, trapped, and held captive in this state of being.
Humans are mammals. While animals in the wild tend to experience stress/threat – theirs has a distinct Beginning (ALARM), Middle (RESISTANCE), and End (EXHAUSTION), after which they return to homeostasis, back to balance. When the stressor/threat/traumatic event (STTE) has been removed, as humans, we have a tendency toward staying stuck in the exhaustion phase and do not complete the stress cycle loop; animals do this by shaking or other bodily movement, whereas human tend to keep stress trapped within the body and neglect to release it. A good example of this is a toddler who throws a temper tantrum one moment and then is happy and playful the next – this is entirely normal – those emotions need to be released form the body. We train children that this is inappropriate and that you will be in trouble if you have a temper tantrum – they experience shame for releasing their emotions so they hold it in – then I have a bunch of people in my therapy office apologizing for crying. “LET IT OUT! You are allowed to cry.” Is ALWAYS my response to those apologies. You don’t have to be sorry for feeling.
- Beginning – alarm – fight/flight response
- Middle – resistance – fear/alert
- End – Moving, talking, coping, breathing, restorative practices, etc.
- Exhaustion – Chronic stress – hypervigilance -toxic stress – burnout – depression – anxiety -OCD – phobias – medically unexplained physical ailments and illness, constant worry (stress remains)
Coping involves giving your body the necessary support, resources, skills, and tools to support recovery and to close the stress loop.
Healing and Momentum
Toxic stress is when you have continued exposure to stressors and your body is unable to restore, replenish, recover, and the brain is rewired to be hypervigilant and on the look out for stressors.
You can begin to shift this through habituation (practice and routine), and emotional intensity (experiencing new feelings). This is because the brain is neuroplastic which means that it can adapt and change.
Pendulation involves moving between states of stress and calm. People who experience trauma and toxic stress may have difficulty regulating their emotions via pendulation. This can lead to all or nothing thinking, impulsivity, and extreme decision making.
You can begin to shift this by building your tolerance for experiencing distress – start within the body, observe where you feel tension and stress, then shift your attention to an area in your body that feels calm or neutral. Practice shifting your attention back and forth.
Resourcing involves creating practices, rituals, goals, and visualizations that help you to feel safe.
You can begin to practice this by starting as simply as making your bed more slowly in the morning, creating a morning routine around your coffee, visualizing a safe place in your mind and noticing how you feel when you’re in your happy place, creating smaller goals to alleviate stress, talking to a therapist or other professional healthcare provider or medical professional, exercising, focusing on one thing at a time, doing art or other hobbies, spending time with friends or pets, or even regulating by wearing your favourite sweater or pair of slippers when you get home from work. Take inventory of what resources you have in your life that provide you with a sense of balance and ease.
Working through trauma
If you’re feeling stuck in life it’s likely because you have suppressed emotions and fears that are keeping you trapped in ways of behaving that keep you from completing the trauma loop/stress cycle. It’s a message that you need to begin to heal some wounding that is keeping you frozen.
If you have energy in your body that is constantly ready for fight or flight, then you will either feel hyperaroused, hypoaroused, or you’ll be stuck in freeze – a state of immobility and a sense of numbness. You’ll likely continue to experience symptoms of trauma. The nervous systems needs the energy to be moved through movement, play, and breath, your physiological health needs to be restored through food, and sleep. And your ability to form close connections and relationships needs to be facilitate by practicing tolerating closeness to other or by learning skills for self-soothing. In order to not overwhelm and already dysregulated nervous system, it is importance to build tolerance slowly to heal the wounds of trauma and chronic stress.
This is a body first, bottom-up, approach to healing (Somatic Experiencing). Just thinking that you should be better and that you should do better and that you need to be more disciplined and try harder, and any other form of self-punishment and loathing has gotten you to where you are now. It’s time to look at your life from a different lens so that you can begin to locate trauma and stress within your body, release it, and begin to create momentum within your life.