Let’s start with exploring what trauma is. The term trauma describes a variety of highly stressful, scary, or impactful experiences, which can be either a single event or series of events. For example, trauma can include incidents such as the one-time occurrence of an accident, assault, or rape, as well as multiple incidents over a span of time, such as on-going emotional, physical, or sexual abuse and neglect, intergenerational oppression, or combat experiences, just to name a few.
Unfortunately, traumatic experiences are common. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, at least half of all adults in the United States will experience at least one trauma during their lifetime. That means half of your roommates, classmates, teammates, etc. may have experienced trauma at some point in their lives. Impacts of trauma can be different for different people and depend on what the event means to them.
So, what is a trauma response? According to the American Psychiatric Association (2013), trauma responses can include our reactions to these experiences after they occur, such as: feelings of shame, guilt and a lack of safety; difficulty connecting with others; a negative view of one’s self and others; and an increased risk for substance use, self-harm, and suicide. Survivors of trauma can also develop mental health disorders following these experiences, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD describes a collection of specific types of reactions to trauma: reoccurring, uninvited memories of the event; attempts to avoid reminders of the event; a low mood and negative thoughts; and an ongoing and easily activated stress response. But why do these responses continue after the trauma has ended? To answer this, we’ll have to go backwards, and this is where it gets a little more complicated.
A trauma response is also what happens in our minds and bodies during a trauma. Babette Rothschild, MSW provides a very thorough description of this in The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment. This book is a great resource for anyone who would like a more in-depth understanding, but we’ll just go through a short summary here. This author explains that during traumatic experiences, our nervous system will instantaneously decide for us whether we should fight, run, or freeze. Some events are more complicated, such as ongoing abuse, in which the response that helps us survive may fall outside of the fight-flight-freeze responses or may involve a combination of them. Regardless of the specifics of the situation, our brains automatically choose the response(s) that will give us the best chance for survival in the moment. So basically, we’re not making a conscious choice and we do not have control over what this response is. You can think of it as our “emergency system” that activates when threats to our survival are detected. Because these responses are not typically necessary for situations we regularly encounter, they can cause us to feel confused, ashamed, or disconnected from ourselves later when we’re in a safe place and this emergency system is no longer activated.
However, for individuals who develop PTSD, this emergency system remains activated after the danger has passed. Such individuals are on high alert for threats to their safety. Things, places, people, smells, sounds, our own emotions and physical sensations can remind us of the traumatic experience, even if we’re not consciously aware of the connection to the trauma. These reminders enhance the activation of this emergency response system and cause associated bodily and emotional reactions, such as a racing heart, sweating, fear, or anger, as well as specific memories of the trauma. This experience can also be understood as a trauma response, because the body automatically reacts as if this dangerous event were happening again and as if immediate action is needed to survive the situation. This can feel like the trauma is happening again, or is still happening, which is why recovery can take some time and does not necessarily begin when the original traumatic event has concluded.
These reactions are the brain’s way of helping us to survive traumatic experiences and to decrease the chance that they will happen again. However, ongoing trauma responses can have a devastating effect on social, academic, and occupational parts of our lives and our general well-being. Imagine how difficult it would be to go about your normal routine – attend all your classes, do all your homework, go to work, engage meaningfully with friends and loved ones, and handle all the stress that normal life throws at us – if your body and brain were telling you that you are in immediate danger. It would indeed be very difficult, and life would become painful. Therefore, those responses that helped us to survive the event itself actually become less helpful to us once the traumatic situation has ended. For survivors of trauma, whether they have these PTSD responses or others, help is available to support you in making sense of these experiences, finding ways to feel safe, and regaining your sense of well-being.
We at the Student Counseling Center (SCC) want students to know that they are not alone and that there are many resources when they are ready to reach out for assistance. Students can schedule an appointment with the SCC at 503-352-2191 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Counselors are also available without an appointment during walk-in Monday through Friday from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. In addition, we encourage individuals in crisis to utilize the Washington County Crisis Line at 503-291-9111 or the Crisis Text Line (text “CONNECT” to 741741), both available 24/7. For more information and resources visit www.pacificu.edu/counseling.