What images does your mind conjure up when you hear the word ‘trauma’?
Trauma was not a word I truly understood until fairly recently – which considering my own ‘story’ is rather ironic. For me, the word trauma was a bit like the word ‘stress’. In my world, stress was bandied about with such frequency and was attributed to so many of our less desirable behaviours that I failed to realise the impact actual stress had on us as human beings.
It wasn’t until I began working on a health publication in Scotland, many moons ago, that my education really began around what actually happens within the body when it’s flooded with stress chemicals. I quickly realised ‘stress’ is not just something in your head, nor is it just something to say when someone is red in the face with anger or exasperation. It affects your mental and physical health and, yes, it can be a killer left unchecked. Which brings me back to ‘trauma’.
If the word ‘trauma’ made you think of limbs being lost through war, or horrific incidents or death-defying accidents you’re not alone. The sad reality is, while yes, trauma does indeed happen in these scenarios, trauma can often begin at home.
Domestic violence, sexual abuse, mental and emotional cruelty or neglect, serious illness, the loss of a loved one and suicide are all forms of trauma within the home. It can be a one-off event, or it can happen over and over, again and again. Trauma can take the form of an extreme event or betrayal or lots of smaller more insidious occurrences.
Research now shows how damaging trauma can be. In fact, trauma fundamentally changes the brain’s structure and alters its functionalities. Up until I committed to my own trauma counselling for complex PTSD- I had no idea how much my trauma had shaped me – even though I thought I’d spent most of my life actively making sure it didn’t!
Recognising that you have lived through trauma can take many years, let alone how many more it may take you to be brave enough to actually knock on a trauma counsellor’s door. We come up with all sorts of excuses. It was so long ago. I’m OK really – I’m getting by. There are people worse off than me. All the while ‘minimising’ what you experienced (I know that now). Trauma counselling cannot be completed on your own. You need support, so being brave enough to make that appointment is just what’s required if you are to take the necessary steps toward healing.
I wanted to help a friend who was having some challenges of her own, so in between writing and healing sessions I was doing a bit of extra reading. I happened to come across an article about stress and anxiety being a by-product of trauma. I carried on reading thinking there would be some help in there for her.
The article drew me in and suddenly a wave of gut-wrenching emotion swept over me with the realisation that I myself displayed and felt the whole range of what the writer listed as ‘classic symptoms’. I read further and further until I realised, those things I’d put down to my sometimes ‘feisty’ personality or extreme PMT, were actually the hallmarks of Trauma.
I didn’t go to war – not in the conventional sense – but my home-life growing up was my very own personal warzone where I was constantly under attack of enemy fire. Even if there was a let-up in ‘hostilities’, I lived with the ‘threat’ day-in and day-out until I got out at 17. This childhood experience propelled me into further abuses and ‘traumatic’ experiences in what I always referred to as my ‘wild’ years (thinking these were all aspects of my ‘out-there’ personality). Looking back on my young self I observed my own reactions seemed to veer chaotically between the manifestations of the fight, flight, freeze and ‘befriend’ responses. Incidentally, it’s only recently I have learned about freeze and befriend.
So yes it can take a long time to acknowledge you are a survivor of trauma – particularly if you have never truly understood what the word encompassed. However, gradually, you begin to realise life isn’t meant to be lived this way- and the best bit is – if you are willing to do the work – you can change your life!
And here’s where it gets REALLY interesting!
Trauma lives in a place that can be very difficult to reach with normal words and language or description, and might only be accessed, initially at least, through the ‘symptoms’.
At best trauma can manifest in indescribable anxiety, a sick feeling or a heavy, empty ache … either quite randomly or as the result of a smell, a place – or even someone’s expression! At worst, as I’ve alluded to, trauma can meet you through uncontrollable rage, risky behaviour, addiction or life-limiting behaviour. Sometimes all of this and more …
In order to reach the trauma – to give it a voice – you must find a safe way to express it. This is where ‘expressive arts’ can come in very useful. Without getting too deep into the detail here, it’s possible to combine psychology and the creative process to promote emotional growth and healing.
This intermodal approach to psychotherapy and counselling utilises our inherent desire to create, as a therapeutic tool to help the desired shift occur. The difference between expressive arts therapy and art therapy is that expressive arts therapy draws from a variety of art forms, while art therapy tends to be based on one particular art form (such as writing, painting, music or dance).
This was actual music to my ears when I discovered this. I had been a writer from a very young age – by the age of six I knew I wanted to be a writer. I vividly remember writing pages and pages and then re-reading what I’d written only to discover what I was actually thinking. To discover what was going on in my own mind – because I could never express it verbally. More than that – I didn’t know it was in there to be expressed. In those days there was no-one to tell – no-one to listen anyway – so writing had obviously been my gateway to accessing my innermost thoughts and emotions – my gateway to my own healing.
The wonderful news is – according to the research post-traumatic stress disorder is reversible. The human brain can be re-wired. The brain may be a finely-tuned instrument but isn’t it heartening to know the brain also has an amazing capacity to regenerate and heal? And isn’t it amazing to know you can use writing as a ‘safe’ tool alongside your other support systems? If you want to know more do let me know. I have got a few new workshops coming up in 2020 and it would be my pleasure to let you know when I launch the ‘Giving Trauma a Voice Through Writing’ workshop.
Until then, if you have suffered repeated childhood trauma (domestic/violence sex abuse) I recommend this book as a must-read. It was reading this book that convinced me to go and get Trauma Counselling which – combined with my daily writing practice – has been life changing! Transformation at work! Journey Through Trauma by Gretchen Schmelzer