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8 Surprising Facts About Trauma You May Not Know

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event can of course affect your mental health. It can turn your whole world upside down and it may be difficult to go about your life like you used to. If you have gone through a deeply traumatizing event and are struggling, you are not alone and there is nothing to be ashamed of.

• What is PTSD?

There are some aspects of surviving trauma almost everybody seems to know. For example, trauma is usually caused by huge events like a natural disaster or abuse, or if you’ve survived trauma you probably have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), flashbacks and lots of mental health symptoms. If you’ve survived trauma, however, you probably know it’s often more complicated than “just” one particular diagnosis, sometimes in ways you might not even realize yet.

To shed some light on lesser known facts about trauma, from physical symptoms to dissociation and how trauma changes your brain, we rounded up eight surprising facts about trauma you may not know.

1. There are two types of trauma: “Big T” and “little t.”

You probably already know trauma comes in different shapes and sizes. Some experts use the terms “Big T” and “little t” trauma to help explain how different distressing events may effect you, whether it’s childhood emotional abuse or repeated financial worries later in life.

“Big T” traumas are typically major events like a natural disaster, car accident, war or sexual assault. These events, which often feel life-threatening in the moment because you have almost no control in the situation, can cause lasting mental health consequences after one event.

“Little t” trauma, on the other hand, includes events that are hard to cope with and distressing but usually not life-threatening. Examples of “little t” trauma range from conflict with a significant other or an abrupt relocation to planning a wedding, getting a divorce or having or adopting a child.

A series of “little t” traumas can also accumulate and the stress can quickly add up. When this happens, especially over a short period of time, “little t” trauma can have a big impact. Regardless of the type of trauma you have gone through, know your feelings and experiences are valid.

2. We actually have five survival defenses.

You might be familiar with the body’s fight, flight or freeze responses to trauma, but you’re also equipped with two others — the submit and attach survival defenses — when those first three options haven’t gotten you out of danger.

To submit, comply or “flop” as a survival defense typically comes after a freeze or paralyzed state hasn’t worked. The submit defense mechanism will then tell you to go along with whatever is happening to prevent further harm. The U.K. organization Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors (PODS) described this defense as “zombie-like submission where people do what they are told and do not protest at all about what is happening to them.”

An attach or social engagement, “cry for help” or “friend” survival defense involves trying to appeal to the natural urge of humans to connect with each other, like a newborn baby crying to bring an adult closer to get their needs met. This could be crying in a difficult situation to hopefully gain sympathy from an attacker or trying to lighten the mood and crack jokes to distract an angry parent.

Trauma expert Janina Fisher, Ph.D., describes these survival defenses by providing the following example:

In response to the sound of the abuser’s voice or footsteps, the panicky alarms of a fearful part (freeze) can alert the individual to danger; a playful part might try to lift the parent’s irritable mood and facilitate a positive connection by making him laugh (social engagement); a caretaker aspect of self (submission) can become the precociously responsible child who tries to protect herself or younger siblings in the face of the violent behavior; or a hypervigilant aspect of self (fight) may become a kind of bodyguard, carefully observing the parents’ mood and directing the child’s activity to best defend against their “frightened or frightening” behavior.

3. Physical pain symptoms are a common response to trauma.

Even though we most often associate trauma with mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma can affect your whole body and cause a range of physical symptoms too, like chronic pain. This is because your natural response to trauma very much happens in your body, specifically your nervous system.

During what your brain perceives as a threat, it will send a signal to the sympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system to rev up the body for defense. This means non-essential functions, like digestion, are halted, and your body diverts resources, like increased blood flow to the heart, to prime you for action.

According to psychologist and trauma expert Peter Levine, often after a traumatic situation, that action energy becomes stuck in your body because it wasn’t released or used. When the energy doesn’t get released, it stays stuck and causes a range of symptoms. Levine added that in addition to “classic” trauma symptoms such as flashbacks and nightmares, you may experience chronic pain or chronic stiffness, among other physical symptoms.

4. Shaking or trembling after a traumatic event is normal.

It’s perfectly normal — and even healthy — to start shaking or trembling immediately following a traumatic event, or after working through the memory in therapy. Levine explained this is how the body releases or discharges the extra defensive energy that gets “stuck” in the body during a traumatic event.

Muscles contract during traumatic events to prepare your body for potential action. When the trauma has passed and you are safe, often your body starts shaking to get those muscles to relax and release the energy stored in your body. If you’re experiencing prolonged stress and anxiety following a traumatic event, your muscles are likely contracted for that period of time as well, which can lead to pain and stiffness.

Ideally, you will start shaking or trembling as soon as the danger of a traumatic event is over. However, if you’ve survived chronic trauma, such as childhood abuse, your body may not be safe enough to relax or process the trauma until much later when you’re an adult. By working through the trauma memories in therapy, especially using techniques that involve your body, you can facilitate your body’s natural discharge process.

5. There is a strong link between trauma and addiction.

It’s often hard to know how to cope with the aftermath of trauma, which can include intense and uncomfortable feelings or intrusive memories. For this reason, it’s not uncommon to use substances like drugs and alcohol as a way to self-medicate, which can lead to addiction. According to a number of studies, there is a strong link between trauma and addiction.

For example, one 2010 study compared substance use with childhood trauma history and PTSD symptoms. According to the study, researchers found a significant correlation between trauma and subsequent substance use. Nearly 60% of young people who survived childhood trauma later developed an addiction. In addition, the study found that those who used more substances also experienced more severe PTSD symptoms.

While it’s understandable if you use substances to self-medicate after trauma, over the long-term it’s important to find safer coping skills to help you manage intense emotions and trauma symptoms. If you’re struggling with addiction, you’re not alone and recovery is possible. Reach out to a mental health professional or trusted love one for support.

6. There are five different types of dissociation.

Dissociation can make you feel disconnected from your thoughts, memories or sense of identity or feel like things are just a bit — off. Although most people at one point or another may get “lost in a book” or not remember part of a drive home, dissociation following trauma usually lasts longer and can be very disruptive.

Dissociation is also an umbrella term for what experts such as Marlene Steinberg, M.D., separate into five different types of dissociation you may experience: derealization, depersonalization, amnesia, identity confusion and identity alteration.

Derealization is when you feel like the world around you isn’t quite real or is distorted, like you’re in a movie or perceive a room or furniture as smaller or bigger than usual as well as visual distortions where everything might look flat or two-dimensional. Feeling disconnected from yourself, including your feelings, thoughts, senses or body, is what happens with depersonalization. It can also feel like you’re an outsider looking in at yourself.

Amnesia is the experience of not being able to recall information about yourself or your experiences, and these lapses in memory aren’t considered ordinary forgetfulness. Identity confusion is where you might feel uncertainty or conflict regarding your sense of self or identity.

Identity alteration happens when your dissociation is pronounced enough that you have different alters or ego states (sometimes called personalities). If you experience identity alteration, your alters may take over specific parts of your functioning in ways you’re not aware of or have no memory of, which is a key feature of dissociative identity disorder (DID).

7. It’s not your fault if you freeze during trauma.

We know there are five responses you may have during a traumatic event: fight, flight, freeze, attach or submit. This is your body using a built-in automatic system to protect itself from danger. Because it’s part of a biological survival mechanism that’s common to almost all creatures, your system puts a defense in action before you even register what’s happening.

In his book, “Waking the Tiger,” Levine wrote that the defense mechanism the brain chooses happens out of the limbic system. The limbic system includes areas of your brain like the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus, which are in charge of emotions, memory and what experts call “motivating behaviors” like hunger or sexuality. When your hypothalamus detects danger, it’s responsible for sending the alert through your nervous system, which jumps into action.

Because your limbic system has been designed over thousands of years of evolution to effectively respond to trauma and keep you alive, it knows innately which defense strategy to use. Even though freezing during trauma can feel like you gave up or it’s your fault, this isn’t true. Your nervous system made an expert judgment call to freeze in order to save your life based on the circumstances. You couldn’t have changed your response in the moment even if you wanted to.

8. Experiencing trauma at an early age can rewire your brain.

Experiencing some stress as a child, like going to school for the first time or being uncertain about meeting new people, is often good for developing coping skills to deal with harder emotions later in life. It’s toxic stress or trauma that can have adverse impacts on not only your mental health but the very wiring in your brain.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University reported that prolonged toxic stress can send the parts of the brain that deal with fear, anxiety and impulse into overdrive. The main culprit is the stress hormone or chemical cortisol. For young people whose brains are still developing, this means the channels that regulate stress responses in the brain get overdeveloped, making you more sensitive to any stress as you get older.

In addition, scientists have discovered elevated levels of cortisol in children can also impact your brain and body’s ability to regulate important functions like your immune system and change the structure of the parts of your brain responsible for memory and learning. In other words, trauma can have a major impact on your life, right down to your brain structure.

Some of the effects of trauma can sound scary, but know that you (and your brain and body) are resilient and there is hope. If you’re really struggling following a traumatic experience it’s important to seek help. Having someone to talk to who can help you process the memories, feelings and situations you have gone through can be beneficial to your overall well-being. Know that healing is possible and your trauma is valid.

The healing process won’t happen overnight, but finding a therapist or doctor to work with are among the first steps to recovery. Finding the right therapist and therapeutic approach that works for you may take some time, but you can use services like Psychology Today’s therapist finder to begin your search for a helping hand.

If you need support right now, reach out to a trusted person in your life or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. You can also always post a Thought or Question using the hashtag #CheckInWithMe. You don’t have to carry your trauma alone.

For additional resources that have helped others in The Mighty community, check out these stories:

Originally published: May 20, 2019
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