Trauma is what happens when the nervous system gets overwhelmed. When the nervous system is overwhelmed, things (emotions, thoughts, self-beliefs, etc.) do not get stored in the brain properly, and everyday things trigger them to manifest like they are happening in the present when the emotion, physical sensation, and/or perception is actually coming from the past.
Traumatic memories are “less likely to be recalled in a clear, coherent narrative” and more likely to be “remembered in the form of sensory elements without words, ” such as emotions, changes in breathing or heart rate, body sensations, tensing, or feelings overwhelmed (Fisher, 2021).
What are some of the symptoms of Trauma?
- Decreased concentration
- Anxiety, panic attacks
- Headaches, chronic pain
- Loss of sense of “who I am”
- Emotional overwhelm, mood swings, emotion dysregulation
- Shame, guilt, self-blame and worthlessness
- Nightmares, flashbacks
- Substance abuse, eating disorders, self-destructive behaviour
- Feeling unreal, out of body
- Hypervigilance, mistrust
- Denial, disbelief, shock
- Few or no memories
- Loss of a sense of the future, hopelessness
- Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy
- Isolation, withdrawing from others
What works best for Trauma?
Trauma can be very individual and unique. So what works for one person may not work for another. It should involve both top-down (thinking/brain-based strategies) and bottom-up (somatic/body-based) strategies. There are some strategies like EMDR that involve both top-down and bottom-up strategies that have evidence to work for different types of trauma.
The problem with top-down approaches (CBT, some DBT skills) is that they don’t work when someone is hyperaroused or hypoaroused because when you are in those states, you cannot think properly. If someone is hyperaroused or hypoaroused they need to come back to a place where they can think clearly before using these skills. These skills can be useful to people who have been traumatized but they need to be used at the right times and be complemented with bottom-up strategies.
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Peter A. Levine – Healing Trauma
This book has a good summary of trauma plus it comes with a CD that has 12 Guided Somatic Experiencing exercises.
Bessel Van der Kolk – The Body Keeps the Score
This is an incredible book that describes the experience of trauma, how trauma affects the brain, and different treatments for trauma that have been successful. Bessel Van der Kolk is one of the top experts in trauma. This book has been an NYT bestseller and can probably be borrowed from your local library.
Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma – Janina Fisher
This is an incredible workbook that has the essential psychoeducation about trauma as well as step-by-step strategies to start to heal the trauma and cope better with triggers. Janina Fisher is one of the top experts on trauma.