Understanding & Healing Trauma

23 April, 2016

If you exprience anxiety, depression or insomnia, it's possible there's an unresolved trauma sitting in your past.  Find out some of the more unacknowledged sources of trauma and how to heal them.

As some of you know, I gave birth to my first child about one year ago. She is a healthy, sociable and very happy little girl.  She came out pretty angry, but after the immediate birth she settled down and has been a peaceful little pup since.  I tell you this because it took me a little while to realise that I was actually traumatised by the event of her birth -  she indeed got over the whole event much quicker than I did!

In both mind and body I was experiencing some of the more subtle and perhaps less well-known symptoms of trauma, which is why it took me a while to pinpoint.  Once I did I was able to heal and move through it - and - there were a few significant things that helped me with that which I want to share with you.  I want to share it because I’ve been a therapist and a coach for 1 whole decade now, and I’ve noticed that for many people I see a lot of their current issues are a result of not having bounced back properly from trauma. Up until they come to me for help,  no one has recognised it and helped them, and they’ve often been living with daily symptoms of anxiety, insomnia and depression.  I aim to raise some awareness for the less recognised forms of trauma and its aftereffects, and offer people the hope of being able to heal and move on with their lives.

So, for some definitions:

The word ‘trauma’ is banded about a lot and I have often wondered whether a common meaning is fully understood among the general population.  It’s the same with the term PTSD which stands for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  PTSD is most commonly talked about as something you ‘get’ (a disorder, much like an illness) following an outside event, typically a disastrous one  - i.e. an earthquake, a terrorist attack, serving in a war and so on.  I’ve previously written about PTSD and our work in Samoa in 2011 for more details on the more common sources of trauma.

As defined by the DSM IV 309.81 these are the symptoms for PTSD which could lead to a diagnosis:

repeated, distressing memories or dreams of the event; acting or feeling as if the event were still happening; intense distress when exposed to images or sounds resembling the event (i.e. loud noises); efforts to avoid anything that could remind the person of the event; inability to experience normal range of emotions and interest in life; not planning as if life had a future; difficulty concentrating or relaxing (especially sleeping); sudden anger and startle responses.

Now, there are a few things to say about all of this, from an NLP perspective:
  • PTSD is not something you get.  It is a term used to describe a set of symptoms that your nervous system can generate, following a 'traumatic' event.  So we can think of it as a process, rather than a ‘thing’.  Thinking about it like this makes it much easier and possible to hea itl, because if your nervous system learned to do this process, it can learn to do a more helpful process instead (i.e. it can be trained to relax).
  • These unhelpful processes that your nervous system can generate don’t have to follow a disastrous event, or an ‘obviously’ traumatic event.  I think this is why a lot of the less recognised sources of trauma go unacknowledged and therefore un-healed.  The fact is your nervous system is always looking out for you and trying to protect you, and will always generate a fight-flight response on your behalf if it feels threatened enough to do so. This is what gets locked in as a ‘traumatic response’ - the fight-flight mechanism repeating itself.  Sometimes your nervous system gets this right - i.e. when you’re in a war zone, your life IS in danger, so full point to your nervous system for that one!   It can also, like most living organisms, get it wrong - i.e.  when we are in fact not in a life-threatening situation, but our nervous system codes it as if we were.  So a seemingly innocuous event from the outside, can be extremely traumatising for someone on the inside.
  • Some examples of the less acknowledged sources of trauma are:  difficulties in birthing (which happen all the time), the sudden loss of a loved one, what happens in surgery, unpredictable violence, watching someone else be violent, seeing someone else in an accident and/or die, fleeing your own country, any sudden/unexpected and unwanted course of events in our lives can be a source of trauma.
What happened for me personally was interesting (I can say this now from a place of having healed and looking back).  My birthing process took many unexpected turns, as they often do. I remember being totally stuck in fear for most of the 21 hours and that I just wasn’t going to get a baby at the end.  In fact, when she eventually came out screaming, there was a part of me that didn’t quite believe she was here.  It was traumatising for me simply because it was an event where I felt an immense about of fear and loss of control, plus it was unexpected.

About four weeks later I started having difficulties sleeping that were not due to the baby waking in the night.  My body kind of ‘ceased up’ and my breathing was all out of whack.  My heart rate went up to 100 bpm and no amount of deep breathing or ‘relaxation’ would get it down. It was like my body went into trauma, rather than my mind.  There was no obvious trigger for this at this time.  People kept telling me to relax - go to yoga they’d say, listen to one of your body-relaxations, do some deep breathing or meditation.

I tried these things. Not only did they not have a relaxing affect on my nervous system, they had the opposite effect, much to my surprise and horror. Yoga was making me more panicky, as was lying still and watching my breath or ‘trying to relax’  I realised at some point that for whatever reason (who needs to analyse it - the realisation was enough) that two things were serving as triggers for panick:  the quiet and my own breath.  As soon as I realised this and gave myself permission to avoid these circumstances, I was able to start healing properly.  This meant avoiding things that I usually turned to to relax, like yoga and meditation and focusing on my own breathing (who'd have thought one's own breath could be a trigger for a traumatic response? Strange but true, and I have found some other cases where this was also the case).

I’m lucky I was able to recognise this, as many would not. It was the turning point I needed to get the proper help and heal and fully overcome it.  In the end, it was through working with a very skilled NLP coach and using just a few specific techniques.  It was also training myself to feel safe again, idenitfying my 'anchors', spending time with good friends and family and community,  and getting into a really good routine with my week.  You’ll be pleased to know that the things in my life righted themselves again - yoga and peace and quiet are once again happy places as they should be!

My encouragement to you is to look back on some of the events of your life, and even if they don’t seem perhaps logical and rational sources of trauma, consider if they might have been be.  And then get some help for them.  If you have anxiety, depression or insomnia or any of the symptoms in your life it is very likely that an event has got stuck in your nervous system somewhere and its continuously and irrationally trying to keep you safe from it.  We can teach it how to respond differently - appropriately - again.

As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Charlotte.

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