Imagine two people who live through the same traumatic experiences in an almost identical way. They have similar backgrounds and privileges, and similar personalities. One person overcomes the trauma and is able to move forward. The other person is so emotionally affected that they lose interest in activities, lose relationships, and decompensate into a poor state of mental health. Why do some people adapt to trauma differently than others?
While there is no clear answer for this, it may help for us to take a look at trauma and how trauma is a part of each and every person’s journey.
What is trauma?
Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless in a dangerous world. Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and isolated can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.
Trauma can be a singular event, a series of events, living in an unsafe environment, chronic health issues, relationship issues, and seemingly simple things like humiliation or embarrassment.
The common thread of all traumas is that it causes a state of insecurity in both a physiological and psychological sense. Our bodies switch to a state of hypervigilance, preparing for the next traumatic event. Our minds refuse to relax, certain that trauma is just around the corner. We simultaneously relieve prior trauma and worry about the next trauma. This cycle causes us to maintain a state of hypervigilance that we refuse to let go of. Because the nature of life leads us to experience trauma as a natural part of living, we are often unable to return to a secure state of calm. Many times, we handle trauma without thinking until one day it takes us down and we become mentally and/or physically ill. Often people are surprised when this happens and think, “I spent my entire life dealing with stress just fine. Why now?”. There is no simple answer to this, although common threads in studies and theories propose that we “burn out” and have nothing left to fuel the cycle of hypervigilance. Some Eastern medicine theorizes that we burn out our life energy and in many cases, can’t get it back!
How do you avoid burnout? The answer is unique to each person but some common things that help include:
Movement and exercise: We all know that exercising is good for us, but we don’t realize that exercise produces hormones that heal and maintain our hormonal system that controls our trauma responses.
Social interaction: Engaging with others, in most situations, makes us feel safe and validated. It isn’t necessary to talk about trauma, and in some cases it may make things worse. Instead, enjoy the value in engaging with others and process trauma in an appropriate setting.
Altruism: Helping others is one of the most overlooked ways of recovering from trauma, but is often one of the most effective. Helping others feel a sense of safety and community can help us rebuild those feelings in ourselves.
Mindfulness Exercises: The point of mindfulness is to relax and reset your nervous system. Deep breathing, relaxation exercises, meditation, and slow movements can restore harmony in your body.
Sleep: If there is one thing you can do to drastically improve your health and wellness, deep, restorative sleep is it! The more the better!
Gratitude: When people experience trauma, we often get caught up in negative thinking patterns. Practice taking account of all of things you are grateful for in your life. There is a lot of beauty in the world if we take the time to see it!
Patience: Be patient with yourself and others! We live in a world that revolves around instant gratification and quick emotional highs and lows. SLOW DOWN and give yourself the time and space to think about what you want, what you need, and how you want to achieve those things. Take time to listen and reflect back to others what they are saying.