What is Trauma?
Trauma! A word that conjures up so many images. Usually it’s of aggressive violating acting, such as child being spanked with an object so hard that there are marks, or it’s a child who experiences sexual abuse by a loved one. Trauma also includes combat veterans who have fought in war, either witnessing or committing atrocities which still haunt them in the present. But there are other traumas that are often not mentioned because they are systemic. These include: growing up in poverty in unsafe neighborhoods, growing up in war torn countries, or living in repressive societies.
Emotionally and Physically abusive parents impact your beliefs about your self worth and value. Our parents are our first relationships with others. As babies we rely on them completely for warmth, comfort, and our value. When parents are routinely responsive to our needs, love us unconditionally, and heap praise on us we internalize these things and have positive beliefs about who we are and our self worth. On the flip side when our parents call us names or physically harm us we internalized these negative beliefs about ourselves.
Community Violence is all too common for people. In my work as a therapist I have worked with children and families who live in unsafe neighborhoods. These families must brave the uncertainty of gang rivals, financial strain, police intimidation, etc on a daily basis which leaves them constantly on guard. Hypervigilance, so they can protect themselves and their families.
Intergenerational trauma is another lesser known traumas which can impact a persons functioning. Intergenerational trauma are also know as survival adaptations, coping strategies in which previous generations have used to protect themselves and their families but which no longer serve their purpose. Sometimes this comes from parents who seem to constantly criticize their children or push them to do more and be better. Comments about dating within ones own culture or an expectation that you will remain within ones ethnic group are common survival adaptations.
How Trauma impacts you.
All of these things I’ve described are variations of what we in the mental health field call complex trauma. These are only a couple examples but there are more. Either way these are all examples of your body being constantly in fight-flight-freeze mode. Trying to just get through the day and survive to the next. You may have hope that things may be better or maybe you’re so overwhelmed you don’t have a chance to get that far, you just exist moment to moment in that state. As an adult, you begin to see how these types of adaptions, which served you as a child and helped you to survive are no longer helping you in the present. Maybe you’re experiencing anxiety about something specific (finances, your relationships, your children) or maybe it’s a lot of things mixed together causing you to feel immobilized and confused. You may experience depression, “even though you have everything” (total disclosure I really hate when people say why do you feel depressed when you have everything, because really no one has everything, and also what we deem has value varies from individual). And just maybe you are pregnant or you have children and you’ve made it a point to not raise them like your parent(s) raised you and yet you find yourself feeling very angry, resentful and joyless about parenting which is casing you to worry.
Unfortunately not only are these feelings very common but also not a surprising experience as we often play out negative patterns even when we have intentions not to do so. Just blame it on the brain, as it forms around the experiences we have had and orchestrates the patterns of our behaviors. The good news is that there is hope. You do not have to play out those negative patterns and working with a therapist to help you change those patterns (adaptions) to ones that feel more aligned with what and who you want to be, is differently possible.