What do you think of when you hear the word trauma? Adistressing event such as a car crash, an assault or the sudden death of a loved one? Or do you think of symptoms like flashbacks, dissociation and panic attacks?
When trying to understand trauma, it's helpful to think about the body's reaction to the event rather than the event itself. People respond differently to similar events depending on their own subjective experience. Someone who was unable to fend off or escape a perceived danger may be left with a sense of shock which stays with them, causing them to re-experience the trauma whenever they are triggered by reminders of the event. This can present as a whole range of mental and physical symptoms.
It's important to note that although trauma is to do with perceived danger, this does not necessarily have to be an immediate physical threat to life. Things like shame, rejection, humiliation and abandonment can also feel very threatening. Explained in evolutionary terms, this is because it is crucial for our survival that we remain part of the "pack" or "tribe". In other words, we need to belong in order to get what we need.
Polyvagal theory, which was developed by Stephen Porges in 1994, offers a solid framework for helping us understand trauma responses by giving us a picture of how the body and brain work to keep us safe and functional. The mechanism by which this happens is known as the autonomic nervous system. I will try to keep the science quite simple here, to give an overall idea of how this works.
You've heard of fight and flight, right? That's your body becoming mobilised to deal with danger detected (or neurocepted) by your body and brain, working together in sync. Recently fawn and freeze have also been added as typical responses in this state, which is known as the sympathetic system. Think of a time when you felt scared. You probably felt your heart beating fast, muscles tense, increased sweating. Depending on what the perceived danger was, you might have lashed out, run away or hidden, pleaded or frozen rigid on the spot. The feelings here are anxiety and fear.
Now, imagine those reactions didn't work to minimise the danger. The sense of danger is getting more intense and it feels like there is a threat to life. It's time for your body to try a different tack: collapse. This is often called the flop response; the dorsal vagal system is now operating. This is where you might faint, become dissociated or go numb. Going back to prehistoric times when the potential of attack by a predator was a common risk, this "playing dead" tactic might have been very effective. These days, this could show up as depression.
As you're reading this, chances are you're identifying with many of these reactions in your everyday life. Maybe in the past you've been frustrated with yourself for reacting a certain way, but it's important to know that this system is autonomic, meaning automatic. We don't do these things consciously. It's the body's way of keeping us safe.
It's also perfectly normal for us to move in between the states mentioned and the ventral vagal state, which is our social, safe, connected state. For many who have experienced very intense, prolonged or repeated trauma, it can be harder to shift out of the defensive states. These people can find themselves stuck in hyper-alertness, perceiving almost everyone and everything as threatening. Or in a continual state of shut-down, never really present, always detached. Conversely, they may have an inability to detect danger in situations where there is a real threat. Basically, their neuroception (ability to assess their environment) is not accurately aligned with reality.
So, you're probably wondering how, or even whether it's possible for a traumatised person to move out of stuck states and develop a healthier neuroception...especially when these reactions are automatic. It can be a long and challenging journey but there are many effective interventions which can help, including counselling.
It's important to say that talking therapy might not be right for everyone who has experienced trauma. Sometimes a person might not be able to remember what has happened to them, or would not be able to put it into words. There are other types of therapy available (such as EMDR), plus bodywork and breath work have been shown to be very effective.
Where counselling can help is in allowing a traumatised person to build trust with another human being (the therapist), who is hopefully safe. The client is invited into a warm, welcoming space where they will not be judged. They can begin to notice feelings and reactions, in real time, and reflect on what may be triggering these. Co-regulation with the therapist will eventually support independent regulation of the nervous system.
Counselling also enables the client to begin to challenge the narratives they have built to explain what has happened to them, and their reactions.
There is so much more that could be said about trauma- this really is the tip of the iceberg! However, I do hope it has given you a basic understanding. There is a growing body of research emerging and I have listed a few links to some resources below, which you can check out if you are interested in this subject: