Traumatic events are some of the most impactful experiences people face in their lives. Many assume that the only people who can really develop symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are those who have been involved in an extreme, life-threatening event like a soldier at war or someone surviving a car crash when others died.
But even “small” traumatic experiences can affect people in significant ways. Maybe you are one of those people who have had one or more disruptive experiences in your life. Now you find yourself doing things you don’t like or always understand:
• Do you relive experiences that happened so long ago you feel you should be over it by now?
• Do you have large “blank spots” in your memory or difficulty remembering things, especially when you are upset?
• Are you frequently agitated or “on edge”?
• Do you have a problem with anger (or have others told you you do)?
• Do you feel like there is something deeply wrong with you?
• Are you feeling guilty or like whatever happened is somehow your fault (even though you logically know it isn’t)?
• Is maintaining control over your life very important to you?
• Do you have troubling nightmares?
• Is your life feeling more limited because you avoid certain people, places, or situations?
• Do you have difficulty maintaining close relationships?
When you are having difficulty remembering parts of your past, are not at ease in your everyday life, are having trouble sleeping, feel you have little support from others, and have a deep inner sense of shame or guilt, you likely are not living a very comfortable or happy life.
This may seem obvious, but of course you aren’t!
We humans have very real and understandable difficulty dealing with traumatic events. There is this idea out there that we should be able to jump back up after something hard happens and just keep going like nothing happened. Maybe we’ll cry for a little bit, struggle for a few days, but then it’s back to real life:
Money to Earn! People to Take Care of! Responsibilities!
We can’t let our emotions get in the way of things. Even our own brain seems to be in on the act. It literally shuts out overwhelmingly traumatic memories and teaches us we need to continue to avoid “dangerous” situations (even when things aren’t nearly as scary as what we originally experienced).
Everyone Struggles When They Experience Trauma
Most of us walk around every day feeling relatively in control of our lives. However, that sense of control is stripped away when we are traumatized through abuse, near-death experiences, witnessing violence, or loss. Our natural response is to try to regain control. Sometimes this works out okay, but often that new effort to control is only a coverup for your new disturbing inner knowledge that at a moment’s notice something terrible could happen. Your life could again be turned upside down. Having first-hand experience of trauma leads you to feel unsafe because you know that the world isn’t always safe – you’ve lived through it once, what would prevent it from happening again? You may try to tell yourself that you’re okay, but there is always a part of you that worries. This is a VERY uncomfortable way to live your life.
Whatever your trauma is, my bet is you will do literally anything to not have to go through that again. You know this, your body knows this, and your brain knows this, leading you to work to protect yourself from being hurt again. The problem is, the part of your brain that reacts emotionally to frightening or uncomfortable situations is both very fast, but very inaccurate (think, “get out of the road, there’s something coming” – you react quickly and jump out of the road, but that something could be a car, a bike, or a shadow from a plane flying overhead). This part of our brain is very good at helping us react in a crisis, but it is very bad at helping us make rational decisions about what is the best choice.
When a trauma experience is imprinted in your brain, anything that vaguely resembles that experience is responded to with fear or vigilance. Over time, you may be in a CONSTANT state of fear, which leads you to build a type of “emotional armor” just to survive your everyday life.
It is exhausting….. and can become very depressing as well.
PTSD and Trauma Therapy Can Help You Live a Normal Life
Therapists at the Salt Lake Relationship Center are highly aware of the toll experiencing traumatic events plays in people’s lives. Research shows that experiencing psychological injuries (such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or exposure to violence or mistreatment) is the PRIMARY cause cause of mental health problems.
Not genetics. Not “chemical imbalance.” Difficult experiences from your past or ongoing difficult experiences in your present.
This is how we help you recover from trauma. We KNOW there is nothing wrong with you. You have simply been through hard things in your life. We’re not going to think you’re weird. We’ve seen it all before. We’re okay with you. And now you don’t have to hold onto it anymore. And you don’t have to be alone.
Your therapist will support you in understanding your symptoms and why you are the way you are. Most people who have been through trauma are anxious (or would be very anxious if they were not so in control of all aspects of their lives). There’s a reason for this, and it’s an understandable one. Trauma therapy is a place to learn how to live a life not based in fear and control, but instead in acceptance. Your therapist will guide you in figuring out what you like and what you don’t like as a way to discover who you really are. Because when you’re living under the shadow of trauma it’s sometimes hard to know….
A metaphor for thinking about what happened to you when you were traumatized is that a part of you was “frozen” in the time when the trauma occurred. Obviously you didn’t stop living, but some part of you stopped developing. That place in you brain (and sometimes part of your body) just stopped. Maybe you were 3, 8, 12, or 18 years old, but now that part is frozen and stuck, and doesn’t know how to grow. The rest of you is trying to protect that frozen place from being shattered, but that usually just makes the rest of you less likely to grow as well. Your therapist’s job is to help you slowly thaw that tender place and help it grow up and grow strong. He/she knows this is not easy, and will follow your lead in making it happen.
Even if you have been living with negative symptoms for a long time, it is possible to make significant changes. Just the fact that you are reading this right now suggests that you are ready for something different to happen. We are all only ready when we are ready!
You Likely Still Have Questions About PTSD & Trauma Therapy….
I’m concerned that once I start talking about my experiences, my emotions will become so overwhelming, I won’t be able to function.
This is a common concern for those who have experienced trauma, and relates to the need to feel in control. Being highly emotional is obviously the opposite of feeling in control. It is true that if you open up about traumatic events or feelings, it is likely you will become emotional. This is normal. However, this typically is not a long-term reaction. Once you get your feelings out, they are out, and you tend to feel more comfortable with yourself. We encourage you to contrast this with how much energy you have put into keeping those feelings in. Many people spend years, sometimes on a daily basis, preventing themselves from feeling uncomfortable emotions. We encourage you to work through feelings, which leads to a greater sense of control than continually holding them back.
What if I remember something upsetting? How will I know if my memories are accurate?
This is another common concern, especially because the issue of “implanted memories” has been a controversy in counseling. One important thing to know about memory in general is that our memories are notoriously inaccurate, and there is a host of scientific literature to prove this. However, when working on trauma, it is very common for people to remember things they previously forgot. Our approach to these memories is to trust that there is a reason they are coming up, especially from an emotional point of view. When dealing with trauma, the emotional and body sensation content of a memory are typically accurate, even if the exact details are not reliable. This is where we place our focus and help you to gain the most meaning. We never push you to remember or suggest something that didn’t happen. Our job is to support and listen.
Another note about memories is that people do not uncover memories about their experiences until they are ready to handle what they remember. In other words, it is unheard of for someone to come into therapy and suddenly remember a previously forgotten traumatic experience all at once. It happens over time, as you become stronger and more confident in yourself.
What if trauma therapy makes things worse?
Deciding not to come to therapy usually guarantees that your problem will get worse. You will have the advantage of avoiding your issues a bit longer, but they will show up again at some point. 🙂 Working on trauma and PTSD in therapy can be difficult, but in the long run it will definitely NOT make things worse. You will feel more empowered and in control of your life than you ever have before.
I know I need help, but I’m worried about the cost.
Think of therapy as an investment in yourself, much like going to the gym, the dentist, or your doctor. Suffering with PTSD or trauma symptoms often leads to other poor habits that negatively impact relationships, work, health, and self-esteem. Taking the step to start therapy is a way to not only change how you’re living your own life, but also how you are interacting with others around you.