“It’s like holding a paper Dixie cup at the bottom of Niagara Falls,” my client tells me. “It’s too overwhelming to hold, so I spend all my energy trying to contain it…
And I sort of have this feeling of…it’s hard to put into words…not depression exactly, but of being trapped in amber.”
These sentiments of total overwhelm, frozenness, and emotional dysregulation are common to people who have experienced trauma. When our bodies and brains go through frightening experiences in which we feel utterly powerless, we may be profoundly impacted across the various planes of our life.
What is “trauma?”
Trauma may involve an actual threat to life and limb, or it may be defined as an overpowering, frightening experience—often experienced in the absence of an empathic witness. It may be a single event, or a series of life experiences. Both “Big T” and “little t” traumas involve a fracture of perceived safety and trust in others and the world.
On one end of the trauma spectrum, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), could be considered a “Big T” trauma. PTSD is comprised of a cluster of symptoms. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes a cluster of symptoms that may include intrusive memories (e.g., flashbacks or nightmares); avoidance (e.g., avoiding places or people who may trigger painful reminders); negative changes in thinking and mood (e.g., anxiety and depression), and changes in physical and emotional reactions (e.g., being easily startled).
While many of us will never meet the clinical criteria for PTSD, we nevertheless suffer from trauma.
Additional reflections on defining “trauma”
Another way to think about the issue of trauma is to consider the following questions:
- What are some events that may be considered traumatic? (E.g., auto accident, natural disaster, sexual or physical assault, kidnapping, war, the loss of a loved one, an attachment betrayal)
- What are some feelings that you would expect someone to have after a traumatic event? (E.g., sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, shame, numbness, hopelessness, powerlessness)
- What are some thoughts you would expect someone to have after a traumatic event? (E.g., what’s the point, this is too painful, I wish I could escape, I’ll never be the same, others can’t be trusted, the world is not safe, I’m to blame)
- What are some behaviors you would expect someone to have after a traumatic event? (E.g., shutting down, avoiding reminders of the event, using substances to cope, trying to control, reacting with anger or panic when triggered)
- Which of the above apply to you?
It is important to understand that the more intense a trauma, or series of traumas over time, the more energy our bodies and brains—our whole physiological system—will spend just trying to stay regulated. For instance, many people experience increased anxiety as a result of trauma, and the parasympathetic nervous system (i.e., the body’s way of staying regulated) will then be working overtime to try and keep itself steady. This can feel like being on the verge of a panic attack, or on the verge of shut down/numbed out. So, the chaos of trauma is not a character flaw, but a physiological issue.
How does trauma block connection in relationships?
Trauma can be like a third person in a relationship, a complex personality who governs expression and proximity.
The overwhelming impact of trauma on our own body, mind, and emotions can make it difficult to stay open and vulnerable with others. This impact is not only understandably hard to think about, but it’s also very difficult to articulate.
Many people with trauma describe the following sentiments and interpersonal patterns:
“My partner won’t be able to understand, and it’s too hard to explain.”
Many people describe alexithymia, or “having no words for their emotions” after a trauma. This can leave partners feeling isolated.
“If I let myself think about it, it will swallow me up, and I will lose control of my anger or vulnerability. That scares me, and makes me feel ashamed.”
Many describe a fear of being asked too many questions about the trauma, or one’s feelings, and becoming emotionally flooded as a result.
“When I am reminded of the trauma, I shut down. My partner usually thinks she has done something to anger me, but really, I am trying to stay in control of how I feel on the inside.”
Traumatized partners may get triggered by seemingly random cues. This can result in emotional blow-up’s, or numbed out shut down, and can be confusing to both partners.
“It’s so hard to be relaxed in vulnerable situations, either emotionally or physically. I just tense up, don’t know how to proceed, and it’s discouraging for both of us.”
Intimacy may be a struggle (e.g., person who experienced sexual assault in the past may find it very difficult to engage sexually with current partner, despite their desire to do so).
“I get stuck in confused patterns with my partner. I struggle to know what I want. I sometimes feel good about us, and other times I feel the urge to run away .”
Those who have suffered attachment traumas may get stuck in a push-pull pattern in relationships. We may seek proximity to a loved one in order to feel soothed, and then distance ourselves in an effort to manage the fear of being hurt again.
“The smallest thing can make me worry that he is being unfaithful. What if he leaves me like my ex did? How can I be sure and trust that won’t happen to me again?”
Attachment trauma can lead to a sense of fearful hypervigilance and testing in a relationship.
How can we heal?
Now for a word of hope! It is absolutely possible to heal from the internal wounds of trauma, and much more possible if we do it with support.
One major key to healing from trauma is learning how to be vulnerable and trusting—both of ourselves and our ability to tolerate symptoms, and of others. This happens slowly. Sometimes we may need the help of a therapist to learn how to do this.
How therapy can help:
- Psychoeducation about trauma
- Clarity about how this “third person” is impacting the relationship
- Trauma-specific therapies, which are designed to help reduce post-traumatic symptoms. Brainspotting is one such therapy, as is EMDR—both available through CCT. Click to learn more about these therapies, and to schedule an appointment today.
- “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk (comprehensive book on trauma)
- “Hold Me Tight” by Sue Johnson (on relationships)
- https://www.complextrauma.org/ (Further information on trauma)
- https://americanspcc.org/take-the-aces-quiz/ (Free Adverse Childhood Experiences study assessment)
Contact us if you would like to schedule an appointment with one of our licensed clinicians. We specialize in couples and relationship dynamics and work with clients residing in Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, and Texas. We offer daytime, evening, and Saturday appointments.