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What is trauma? What causes it?

“Trauma is the experience of abject powerlessness when something is threatening our life or sense of integrity. It can also occur when we witness this happen to a close one, and we experience vicarious trauma.” — Jane McCampbell Stuart, trauma therapist and coach

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Health care professionals are still relatively new to understanding trauma - only in 1980 was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) first acknowledged as a mental health disorder, mostly recognized in war veterans.

Anyone who has experienced discrimination due to gender, sexuality, ableism, poverty, or race, has also possibly had traumatic events occur related to oppression. We have been made to feel like we don’t belong. Similarly, it is now recognized that anyone who has been diagnosed with a life threatening disease and gone through treatment such as surgery or chemotherapy, has also likely experienced trauma. 

Trauma is messy. When a person experiences trauma, they experience it with their whole self. Every aspect of who a person is changes the way they experience a traumatic diagnosis or event. The experience can be made better or worse depending on a person’s race, gender, level of disability, class, and many other factors. When a person comes from a group that isn’t the mainstream and they are diagnosed with a serious illness, they may experience something called intersectionality. 

Intersectionality occurs as two or more layers of adverse, fundamental experiences. Being non-white, LGBTQIA+, and  diagnosed with a life altering disease are examples of three layers of intersectionality. 

Imagine having a diagnosis of cancer. Now, imagine you are also a transgender man. When your health care team uses incorrect names or pronouns despite correction, it is clear either they are not listening or they do not respect their patient. It can be traumatic to be unseen both physically and emotionally by your health care team. If this situation resounds with you, know that you are not alone. We can set boundaries with our health care team even during treatment. 

Intersectionality can compound layers of trauma - it often becomes bigger, messier, and harder to cope. For some, it can be impossible to avoid compounding layers of intersectional trauma. However, it is possible to acknowledge your unique experiences, and begin the healing process.  

A key part of treating trauma is open discussion about how pervasive it is. We can reduce the stigma of carrying the burden silently. It's advantageous for everyone to recognize where we've had adverse experiences, and how that impacts our immediate reactions in the present. We're glad you're here even considering your own trauma.

Trauma from a Patient's Perspective

Our Brain and Body

Our brain's natural process of creating patterns both protects us as well as leads to traumatic reactions. To help understand why, we could also ask the question why don't animals in the wild develop symptoms of trauma or post traumatic stress disorder after daily life threatening events?

The answer lies in the anatomy of our human brain. We have an advanced prefrontal cortex which pulls information from all over the brain into the control tower for us to make decisions based on our senses. The prefrontal cortex is the center of our cognition, language, and conscious thought. Our brains are fascinating - one advantage of an advanced prefrontal cortex is the ability to interrupt our natural instincts. It is unnatural for us to sit still for long amounts of time, but our conscious brain lets us interrupt the instinct to get up. So when we experience fight, flight or freeze - often times we actively suppress our instinctive reaction.

Frontal lobe A large part of this lobe is the prefrontal cortex Behavior, impulse control, and memory Temporal lobe Hearing, feelings, comprehension Brain stem Pain, breathing, temperature  Parietal lobe Language, sensory input, touch Occipital lobe Sight, processing color, form, and motion Cerebellum Coordination, balance, voluntary movement This is relatively well protected from trauma compared to the frontal and temporal lobes and brain stem.

Animals usually lack this sophisticated prefrontal cortex. When they're scared or their life is threatened, they can run and hide. They can fight. They can follow their instincts. After an animal has removed itself from a situation, they tremble and crouch. They feel the traumatic reaction as survival hormones flood their system. They stay in that moment until their body has processed the danger is over. The trembling helps let go of any residual survival energy. But we humans don't always have the luxury to run away, hide, or otherwise. Sometimes the residual survival energy ends up stored in our body as a result of when we interrupt our instinctive responses. 

This is why integrative trauma treatment should address the brain and body. Trauma is body based first because we experience physiological sensations after a traumatic event.

So it’s not only emotion based. It’s not "all in your head." It actually is in your body. So, let's treat it that way. Learn more about integrative practices to help cope with trauma.

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