What is trauma?
Trauma counselling is explained by first understanding what trauma is: Trauma is the emotional response to an extraordinary experience in which an individual experiences a single or repeated threat to their emotional or physical well-being, undermining their sense of security. This response manifests as prolonged negative mental, emotional or physical states that one is not able to process and therefore one remains trapped in this state irrespective of whether the danger or threat associated with the experience has ceased.
Broadly speaking there are three types of trauma:
Acute trauma– which tends to stem from a single stressful event
Chronic trauma– which results from repeated exposure to a highly stressful event
Complex trauma– which results from exposure to multiple stressful events
It is also possible to experience vicarious or secondary trauma, which is essentially the indirect trauma as a result of close contact with someone who has experienced trauma or simply seeing or hearing accounts of the suffering of other living beings. Over time repeated exposure to difficult content may have a negative impact on our mental health, which is why most psychologists and counsellors see mental heath professionals themselves.
What is a traumatic event?
There is a general misconception that one can only be ‘traumatised’ by an extreme event. Trauma is the feeling you are left with after an extraordinary event, and the type of event is irrelevant.
Trauma is of course caused by extreme events such as domestic violence, community violence, sexual or physical abuse, serious car accident, natural disasters, living in a war zone.
But public ridicule, sports injuries, sudden loss of a loved one, disintegration of a significant relationship, humiliating or deeply disappointing experience, bullying, repeated distress or neglect in childhood, diagnosis with life threatening illness, inconsistent caregiving verbal abuse, to provide some examples, are equally likely to leave one feeling insecure and emotionally or physically vulnerable.
A traumatic event is really any experience which causes physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological harm. Experiences which leave you feeling helpless, vulnerable, anxious, angry, depressed, powerless, scared, numb, withdrawn, irritable, emotional overwhelm, denial, guilt, shame, insomnia or nightmares are traumatic events.
Different people have different tolerances for traumatic events: two people who are subject to the identical experience may have very different responses. Trauma and traumatic events are encompassing terms that derive their meaning from the response of an individual to an event.
How to deal with trauma?
Trauma is our body’s natural response to an emotionally or physically dangerous experience. It has been shown that even animals experience trauma and can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Not everyone who experiences a stressful event will develop trauma: some many experience short term trauma and others may experience long term effects.
It is entirely normal to experience temporary difficulty coping after exposure to a traumatic event, sometimes all ones needs is a bit of time and self-care. But prolonged symptoms, that worsen over time, affect your ability to function in your daily life and relationships, are likely to be diagnosed as PTSD. Post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, is the metal health condition that is triggered by a traumatic event.
Experiencing a traumatic event puts one at risk of developing mental disorders such as PTSD, addiction, depression, anxiety disorder, relationship difficulties, adjustment difficulties, emotional regulation, sexual difficulties, body images difficulties and many others, and if possible one should seek to deal with the trauma.
Essentially trauma is encoded in our brains when the nervous system charges emotional and physical reactions during traumatic event with additional chemicals. As a result of this ‘hard coding’ the event becomes entrenched in an isolated part of our brain, disconnected from the part where we store language and memories, making it difficult to access and process. Often even long after the traumatic event is forgotten the painful emotions recur, inhibiting your ability enjoy the present.
When one is in a deep trauma situation often you are not able to deal directly with what is happening. This is the biological defence mechanism. It takes time before your brain is fully able to access this. Childhood trauma is an example: an abused or neglected child has limited alternatives and often has to endure long trauma which is only dealt with as an adult because it is almost impossible to confront any sooner.
How to treat trauma?
Processing trauma can be extremely difficult and painful and can be made easier by turning to others for support and being provided with the time and opportunity to talk about and digest how you feel.
While some people have a network of friends or family that can help them in debriefing and unpacking trauma other people may not. In some instances the nature of the trauma itself makes it difficult to discuss with someone familiar because you feel shameful or embarrassed in which case discussing with a counsellor can be helpful.
In some cases processing trauma can even be re-traumatising as one delves back into the traumatic event/s that are normally suppressed. The healing process is best facilitated by a professional because of the associated risks. Take the necessary time to select a trauma counsellor or psychologist to work with as it is essential that you feel comfortable, respected, safe and well understood in order for the counselling process to be successful.
Psychological trauma has been studied in depth resulting in the development of various effective treatments and approaches. It is important to note however that there is far less research regarding the psychological trauma that under-resourced communities experience, which is often severe and continuous.
Unfortunately, many people find themselves living in violent and abusive environments exposing them to severe repeated traumatic experiences. These are incredibly difficult circumstances with which to address trauma as many are essentially trapped in trauma inducing environments. Our primary instinct is that of survival and it is not always feasible or possible to escape ones circumstances. Often the purpose of counselling is to empower oneself to set up the ideal conditions to liberate oneself from the traumatic circumstances. There is an intial need to build the support systems to reduce the vulnerability.
What is a trauma psychologist?
A trauma psychologist is a qualified mental health professional specialising in assisting people who are experiencing trauma to process the trauma and improve their well-being and allow them to live a happier and healthier life. Trauma psychologists focus on assisting patients in processing the trauma so that they can be released from this harmful state and be taught the coping skills to continue a fulfilling life in spite of the traumatic experience.
Working with a trauma psychologist is likely to involve therapy sessions (either individually or in a group) which will involve being assessed by the psychologist, developing an understanding of your circumstances together and the nature of your specific trauma response to the traumatic event and embarking on the journey to recovery with the guidance of the psychologist with reference to established treatment methods.
A psychologist would have a bachelor’s degree and be registered with the Health professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA). In addition, the trauma psychologist is likely to have an experience in dealing with trauma specifically and possibly trauma orientated academic credentials. Note further that trauma psychologists, just like all psychologists, are required to undertake ‘continuing professional development’ (CPD) which stipulates that the professionals continue to learn, engage and consistently expand their knowledge throughout their profession. he purpose of CPD is to ensure that professionals continue to be competent in their profession.
What is trauma counselling?
Trauma counselling (also referred to as trauma debriefing) is essentially the healing process which assists you to deal with symptoms that you are stuck with after a traumatic event. The goal is essentially to resource you with the skills to cope with the traumatic event and to enable you to heal so as to restore yourself to a state of being in which you are able to feel thrive in life rather than simply surviving.
Trauma counselling allows you to validate your emotions, assess your current coping mechanisms (which may for example involve unhealthy habits such as substance abuse), help to make sense of what has happened in your life, move away from avoidance and suppressive behaviours, understand, recognise and integrate the traumatic event into your life in a meaningful way and essentially unshackle you from the past and allow you to live in the present and for the future.
Due to its complexity and the fact that time is a contributor to healing, trauma counselling or therapy is suited to long term therapy, undertaken slowly and in a safe space.
Give yourself time
Being able to recognise if you are experiencing trauma is very valuable for ones mental health and well-being. Being able to identify how your trauma is manifesting emotionally, mentally, socially and physically will help you to understand when and whether to seek help. Recognise your need for support, take care of yourself (eat well, sleep well, exercise often), establish a good routines and most of all be patient with yourself, time is a the greatest healer…
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- Should I see a psychiatrist, psychologist, counsellor or social worker?
- 10 Key Questions for your Psychiatrist or Therapist
- 5 Smart Ways to Get the Most Out of Teletherapy
- >60 Warning Signs of Mental and Emotional Abuse
The Trauma Clinic which has been operating the TraumaClinic Schools Programme in Cape Town’s townships over the past ten years focuses in Secondary School learners and the need to counsel and to assemble support networks from peers and family in order to restore confidence and esteem in adolescence which have been subjected to continuous trauma, violence and neglect. Refer to the following useful links below from the Trauma Clinic resource library: