Trauma refers to events which are emotionally painful and which remain in an individual’s subconscious throughout one’s life. Trauma can occur in many different forms: (1) directly experiencing a violent event or mistreatment from peers or family members, (2) witnessing a violent event or death which happens to someone else, (3) dealing with a traumatic event which happened to a close friend or family member, (4) experiencing physical or emotional abuse, (5) experiencing abandonment or neglect, (6) losing a family member to suicide, (7) growing up in a household with substance abuse or alcoholism, (8) having a mentally ill parent, (9) having an incarcerated parent, and (10) being a child of divorce or parental separation
If you have experienced one or more traumatic life events, your brain chemistry was “rewired” in the important decision-making and emotional regulation pathways, and specific brain structures were debilitated in their functioning potential. The most significant brain structure affected by traumatic events is the amygdala, which triggers your “fight-or-flight” response. Traumatic experiences create an overreactive fear response within the amygdala, and, even with therapy, triggers can randomly affect the amygdala’s ability to manage any stressor. Furthermore, traumatic experiences cause your prefrontal cortex to have extreme difficulty in regulating your emotional responses to external events and in utilizing effective coping strategies in all areas of your life. The brain structure which is most severely damaged by traumatic events is the hippocampus, which is your brain’s memory structure. After experiencing a traumatic event or even ongoing emotional abuse, your hippocampus cannot separate safe events from the traumatic events, thus keeping you in a constant state of crisis mode.
Many people understand the concept of “trauma” as a single event, such as being an assault victim or witnessing a death. This type of trauma is categorized as acute trauma. However, three other types of trauma require more extensive research and greater clarity by mental health professionals when treating a client with anxiety, depression, attention deficits, and work and/or personal difficulties. Three other forms of trauma are chronic trauma, complex trauma, and intergenerational trauma.
Chronic trauma results from repeated and prolonged exposure to highly stressful events, such as long-term emotional neglect, emotional abuse, family violence, community-based violence, childhood physical or sexual abuse, bullying, or domestic violence. Chronic trauma can occur for months to years. Chronic trauma rewires the brain’s fight-or-flight response so dramatically that the survivor becomes “stuck” in the sympathetic nervous system’s heightened adrenaline state. Furthermore, the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for creating the relaxation response, can become extremely paralyzed. Chronic trauma has long-lasting effects which extend throughout the adult years, in the form of hypervigilance, irrational fears, emotional instability, frequent negative self-talk, self-destructive behaviors, involvement in abusive relationships, and having a general sense of being “flawed” as a human being. Survivors of chronic trauma also tend to internalize toxic shame, helplessness, and a feeling of “separateness” from others.
Complex trauma occurs when a child experiences multiple traumatic events, such as witnessing repeated episodes of interpersonal violence, being victimized by physical abuse or sexual abuse, being separated from one’s primary caregiver, and or enduring years of emotional abuse or neglect. Complex trauma can also result from growing up in a dysfunctional family environment with a low level of emotional support and a high level of inconsistency. Complex trauma can include extended periods of physical, verbal, emotional, and/or sexual abuse, experiencing a death or other significant loss, parental abandonment, parental rejection, family chaos, parental substance abuse, and bullying from peers or siblings. Complex trauma survivors often struggle with emotional regulation, as evidenced by persistent feelings of depression, rage, and panic. Secondly, complex trauma survivors often experience cognitive difficulties, such as ruminating negative self-talk, frequent and uncontrollable dissociation, a very fragmented sense of identity, humiliation, and feeling unworthy of seeking support from others. Third, they are prone to lifelong behavioral difficulties, such as impulsivity, aggression, sexual acting-out, substance abuse, eating disturbances, sleep disturbances, and other self-destructive behaviors. Lastly, they often socially isolate, as a result of trust issues, insecurities, and an extreme fear of abandonment. This trauma symptom causes frequent interpersonal difficulties and intimate relationship problems
Intergenerational trauma occurs when the effects of trauma are passed down between generations. This can occur if a parent experienced childhood abuse or other adverse childhood experiences, and the cycle of trauma and abuse impacts their parenting. Intergenerational trauma results from learned overreactive fear responses and observed emotional chaos by one’s caretakers, typically one or both parents. If one’s parents or grandparents experienced trauma, their DNA coded itself to have a survival response that helped them get through those events, which then passed down through generations. This “survival mode” remains encoded and passed down for multiple generations, even in the absence of additional trauma. When someone experiences trauma, their DNA responds by activating genes to help them survive the stressful situation. These genes are often transferred, typically subconsciously, to one’s children and even to one’s grandchildren.
Those affected by intergenerational trauma might experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and/or Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Symptoms including hypervigilance, severe anxiety, and mood dysregulation. Because stress responses are linked to physical health issues, intergenerational trauma can also manifest as medical issues, including heart disease, stroke, or early death. Intergenerational trauma can also be the result of oppression, including racial trauma or other systemic oppression. These childhood or adolescent emotional and cognitive wounds often create the foundation for deep-seated toxic shame and self-sabotage for the survivor. They also bear the burden of guilt and negative self-talk which was inflicted upon them and becomes a part of their identity. They tend to emotionally “shut down” in all significant relationships and to also experience social anxiety and self-doubt on a daily basis. They are also prone to lifelong behavioral difficulties, such as impulsivity, aggression, sexual acting-out, substance abuse, and other self-destructive behaviors. Cognitive difficulties, such as uncontrollable dissociation and a very fragmented sense of identity, are also common among survivors of childhood and adolescent trauma.
A major goal of trauma therapy is helping the trauma survivor to establish sense of security and comfort within oneself and within one’s significant interpersonal relationships, rather than being in crisis mode. Another important goal of trauma therapy is helping the trauma survivor with utilizing self-regulation and with maintaining healthy relationships. The most significant treatment areas for trauma survivors are the pervasive sense of being disconnected from others during daily life, trust and abandonment issues in relationships, severe difficulty with emotional regulation, and frequent mood instability. When traumatic childhood or adolescent memories are wired into the brain, it requires hard work to destroy old narratives. Effective trauma therapy focuses upon cognitive reprocessing, which can be frightening but which is integral to creating real change in behaviors, thought patterns, and emotions. A final point is that a trauma survivor has the strength gathered from getting through difficult and painful life experiences. This strength can be channeled toward recreating one’s sense of self and letting go of the shame and insecurities associated with the traumatic experiences.