While most of us have heard of trauma in the context of what can happen to military veterans returning from combat, anyone can experience lasting effects from a frightening, tragic or life-threatening event such as a car accident, a natural disaster, a home break-in or the death of a loved one. Women are especially vulnerable to trauma after surviving a sexual assault or ongoing domestic abuse.
Some of trauma’s defining characteristics include:
- Feelings of lost control and safety
- Flashbacks or nightmares that force you to relive the event again and again
- Hyperarousal, or trouble relaxing due to being on constant high alert
- Intrusive emotions
- An overactive fear response that may cause you to startle easily
Triggers can take many forms, and can occur when you least expect them. However, these triggers don’t arrive entirely out of thin air. Though you might not be consciously aware of all the thoughts, feelings, sensations and environmental cues you experience throughout your day, you can work to increase your awareness of these triggers and improve your response to them.
Trauma triggers can be either internal or external. Internal triggers include things like dreams, memories and feelings, while external triggers can relate to specific people, sounds, locations or occasions. Ideally, you’d be able to entirely avoid triggering events and stimuli, but since that’s unrealistic, start by making a list of all your known triggers and how they make you feel. This step can restore some of your self-agency by making you more aware of your emotions in the moment.
Our current understanding of trauma is that it changes people’s brain function. For example, brain scans of people living with trauma have shown overactivity in a region called the amygdala, which is responsible for activating the innate fight-or-flight response. Traumatized people also have decreased function in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, which may explain how trauma affects memory and high-level reasoning.
Mindfulness meditation is one all-natural technique that has helped many trauma survivors find relief. If you’re new to meditating, you can start practicing meditation on your own or choose from many resources to guide you as you learn. The goal of meditation is not to achieve an absence of thoughts; rather, it’s to heighten your awareness and learn to process your emotions non-judgmentally. A daily meditation practice can serve as an outlet for stress, while helping you manage anxiety and improving your memory and attention span.
It’s crucial to remember that everyone processes trauma differently, and that these complex emotional responses are unlikely to resolve on their own. However, many people turn to alcohol and drugs in an attempt to mute feelings such as guilt, shame, anger, hopelessness and fear.
While drinking and drug use may provide fleeting relief, substance misuse can bring about a whole host of other physical and mental health problems. Failing to address the root cause of your long-held trauma will only make matters worse in the long run, as a worsening substance use disorder can put healing further and further out of reach.
Many people who self-medicate with mood-altering substances go on to develop a dual diagnosis, and in these cases, treating both conditions simultaneously is necessary to teach you healthy coping mechanisms and set your life back on a positive course. Holistic therapy that combines individual counseling with psychiatric care is the only practical solution for improving your long-term mental health.
If trauma’s long-lasting effects are preventing you from enjoying your life to the fullest, professional help can be a significant step in helping you reclaim your freedom. At New Found Life, we have been serving our clients since 1993 with our holistic approach to dual-diagnosis treatment.