The Complexity of Trauma

A counsellor resting her hand on a clients shoulder during a therapy session

In a recent ACAP mini-class, Dr. Julien Tempone-Wiltshire, a Senior Lecturer at ACAP, delved into the intricate realm of trauma. This article offers insights drawn from the mini-class, shedding light on key concepts that were explored during the session. For those interested in delving deeper, the complete mini-class is available for viewing here.

Trauma is a complicated concept that’s not easily defined. Trying to explain it in just one way doesn’t do justice to how complex it is. To understand trauma better, we need to recognise that it has many different aspects that are connected to every part of human life.

At its centre, trauma is a powerful force that affects us in various ways. Understanding Trauma requires looking at its physical side – how it affects the brain and body and what physiological symptoms and results it brings. At the same time, it also looks at the personal side, examining the actual lived experiences of those who go through trauma and the things that remind them of it.

The Layers of Trauma

When we look into trauma, it’s like taking a journey through different connected parts that touch every aspect of a person’s life. These parts include how trauma affects emotions and thinking, how it shows up in the body and senses, and how it affects relationships. It even reaches into the way someone acts in social situations. Trauma also has an impact on work and can bring about addictions, and various interpersonal problems.

But trying to put a simple label on trauma is difficult because it’s so interconnected. As we go deeper into it, we start to see how all these complex parts fit together, giving us a full picture of how trauma affects people in many ways.

Embarking on the Exploration of Trauma

When we begin to learn about trauma, we need to think about how the mind and body work together. In the past, people thought of them as separate, but now we know they’re connected. Trauma affects both the mental and physical parts of a person.

The focus of this learning is understanding how trauma affects the way the mind and body are connected. This means looking at how trauma affects the nervous system, which includes the central nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. It also includes how trauma affects how the body reacts and gets ready to respond. We’ll also talk about how trauma changes how the body is experienced.

Navigating the Autonomic Nervous System

One important thing to learn about when exploring trauma is the autonomic nervous system. This physiological system performs its job automatically, which is why it’s called “autonomic”.

Inside this autonomic nervous system, there are two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems. These parts work together to control lots of things our body and emotions do. Also, this nervous system is connected to the endocrine system, which deals with hormones. This all shows that there are reactions in our body that we don’t control consciously.

When we want to understand how trauma affects the way our mind and body work, we need to look at the nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is a big part of this because trauma has a strong impact on it.

How the Body Reacts to Trauma Through the Autonomic Nervous System

When we look a bit closer at how the autonomic nervous system works, we see interesting ways our body responds to trauma. People might react by being really alert and sensitive all the time, like their body is always ready for action. This is called “sympathetic dominance.” It’s like they’re constantly in a fight mode.

On the other hand, some people react differently. They might feel stuck and unable to do anything. This is called a “dissociative freeze response.” It’s like their body shuts down because it can’t fight or run away. This makes them seem distant from what’s happening around them, like they’re lost in their thoughts.

Neuroception and Trauma’s Filters

Now, let’s talk about something really interesting —neuroception. Neuroception is about how we automatically look for things that might be dangerous around us, even if we don’t realise it. This “filter” affects how we see the world and decide if we’re safe or not.

This automatic way of looking for danger helps our nervous system find things that could be a problem. It’s why sometimes things that remind us of a bad experience can suddenly make us feel scared or upset. For instance, if someone had a bad experience during an earthquake before, just brushing their teeth might bring back those feelings because it reminds them of that earthquake. This shows how trauma can change the way our body reacts without us even knowing it.

How Trauma Affects Families Over Time

When someone goes through tough experiences during their growth and how they connect with others, it can affect not just them, but also their children and even their grandchildren – this is termed intergenerational trauma. The way people learn to handle relationships and feelings gets passed down without them even knowing it, which can cause problems in how they connect with others. This cycle of problems can keep going until someone decides to break it.

Transformative Power of Trauma Therapy

Trauma therapy is incredibly powerful for addressing deep-seated traumas. It takes place within therapeutic relationships with a practitioner, which can heal disruptions from early life. Through therapy, we can tackle attachment issues and bring about transformation. The process involves several steps: making sure the person feels safe and stable, handling their emotions in a healthy way, and facing the past traumas. The therapist helps individuals reconnect with memories and feelings, fostering a judgement-free acceptance and exploration. Trauma therapy can even break the cycle of trauma passing through generations, by helping people process fragmented experiences and becoming stronger. Therapists skilfully guide clients, helping them handle tough feelings better and boost their self-control.

In summary, trauma is complex and connected to every part of our lives. To understand it, we need to know how our mind and body work together, how it affects our body’s automatic responses, and how it can pass from one generation to the next. Trauma therapy is a way to heal and change, helping people create a better story for themselves and become stronger.


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