Trauma Is Common; Yet Unique
It is a near universal experience to be faced with a trauma at some point in our lifetime and our individual responses to experiencing trauma are as unique as each person is different. Trauma is more common than we like to think, and it is unfortunately often hidden in the shadows due to shame and denial. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) defines trauma to encompass anything that creates a feeling that someone was “intensely threatened by an event”. This definition leads us to acknowledge that trauma can take on a range of events that are not always easily recognizable. For these reasons, becoming trauma-informed has become the expectation rather than the exception.
What Happens When We Experience Trauma?
For individuals who have experienced a trauma or multiple traumas (known as toxic stress), it would not be uncommon for them to experience a variety of symptoms. Trauma is known to have an impact on several major areas of brain functioning. The amygdala (responsible for emotional control), the thalamus (responsible for processing incoming sensory data), the hippocampus (responsible for long-term memory) and the prefrontal cortex (responsible for the executive functions such as: judgment, decision making, impulse control, etc…). What we have learned is that when faced with a threatening event, stress chemicals are released into the body. These chemical set off a chain of reactions that serve a functional and survival role in the body and take us back to our most basic instincts of ‘fight’ or ‘flight’. When the body is threatened it is the surge in these chemicals that allow us to respond in a way to protect ourselves; think of being in the woods and encountering a bear.
When these chemicals are released our amygdala (emotion control center) becomes more active and alert, this is often referred to as being in a hyperviligent state. Again, this is a functional response in the body (remember the bear?). We need to be more aware of our surroundings, our senses become more activated, and our reaction time is almost immediate. Other things happen in the body/brain simultaneously. The prefrontal cortex becomes less active, as now is not the time for list making and taking a minute to ‘mull it over’. For most individuals the stressor passes, the stress chemicals lessen, and the individual returns to their baseline state. However, for some individuals their ability to cope has been overwhelmed by trauma and these normal brain reactions become stuck in the ‘on’ position. This overload of stress chemicals continues to keep the amygdala overactive and suppresses the activity in the prefrontal cortex. This surge also impacts the function of the thalamus (sensory input) and the hypothalamus (memory storage). The result is that both parts of the brain may become overloaded and therefore not work as designed. This can result in fragmented memory and storing memories without awareness (unconscious memories). These are all symptoms that may negatively impact functioning.
To become trauma-informed it means that one must recognize and respond to the impact of traumatic stress. For our community to become trauma-informed we must be aware of the existence and impact of trauma that exists around us, and also become responsive in that we start to do things differently as a result of this knowledge. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), becoming trauma-informed involves awareness of the events, experiences, and effects of trauma. This means increasing our awareness that there are many events that can be traumatic, that it is the individuals perception or experience that matters, and that those experiences and events have lasting effects long after the trauma is over. SAMHSA goes on to identify that a trauma-informed response to this knowledge should include the following: realize, recognize, respond, and resist re-traumatizing. We realize the impact of trauma on those around us, we recognize the symptoms, and we respond by changing our own behavior accordingly. All while trying our best to avoid re-traumatizing someone who may be in a heightened state.
The silver lining in all of this is that trauma is treatable and that when we rise up as a community to address such a significant need we are all better as a result. A good rule of thumb is to take universal precautions and treat everyone you come into contact with as though they may have a trauma history.
More trauma resources available on our Trauma Topic Page here.
Submitted by the Regional Mental Health Coalition of Northeast Indiana and written by:
Laura R. Murphy, LMHC, CSAYC
Vice President of Child and Adult Services
Park Center Inc.