Trauma: What is it, and why does it impact us differently?

Us survivors of traumatic experiences tend to know others with similar experiences. Feel free to weigh in on this subject. I’d really love to hear your experiences and how it impacted you throughout your life, and maybe those around you. Do the way they live their adult lives differ from you? Are there similarities? I’ve always been curious if something like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is predictable. Can it be caused by one thing, or several things piled up over time? These are some of the questions I think about in my own life because there are a lot of differences in how I respond to stress vs. how my sisters respond to stress, even though we grew up in the same household. But to understand some of these questions, I think it’s safe to say that we need a better understanding of the types of trauma and why they’re important. 

So, what is trauma? 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA) describes trauma as, “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” I want to point something out in this, guys…physically OR emotionally harmful. Many people assume trauma is only caused by physical abuse or violence, but often times, emotional trauma can be just as devastating to a person’s well being, especially if it’s repeated and/or prolonged. With that being said, just be mindful of everyone’s situation when they get the courage to describe their traumatic experiences with you. And if you are a survivor of any sort of traumatic experience, physical or emotional, do not let anyone tell you that someone else’s is worse. It doesn’t matter if someone perceives something as “worse” than yours. You deserve to feel the way you feel about the things that have happened to you. The part that is unhealthy, is to let it define who you are or who you want to be. Once we get older, and if we don’t learn how to positively cope with the things that have happened to us, it’s then that we see these impairments leading to health-risk behaviors like, smoking, unsafe sex, and drug addiction. Logically, these things can lead to diseases or disabilities that ultimately lead to a premature death. This doesn’t have to be the case, though. And for those of you reading this, you already want to understand your past. This isn’t meant to scare you or anything, and I don’t want you to believe that you are doomed to an early death, or chronic disease, because you’re not. It’s just seemingly more common in people who have experienced adverse experiences throughout their life. 

There are three types of trauma:

Acute Trauma – This results from a single incident. A car accident, rape, assault, natural disaster, witnessing a murder or other crime

Chronic Trauma – This type of trauma is repeated and prolonged such as domestic violence, battling a terminal diagnosis or having a family member that is, and most cases of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse — chronic trauma doesn’t just happen once 

Complex Trauma – Complex trauma is exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events that are often invasive and interpersonal nature. An example of this could be a child witnessing domestic violence while also being maltreated themselves because one of their parents struggle with Bipolar Disorder and alcoholism. But complex trauma can also include events like incest, medical neglect, or sex trafficking where there are multiple layers of both abuse and neglect involved. Complex trauma is the most common because adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) usually happen in pairs, one often leads to another. 

Now remember, just because someone may have experienced less than someone else, does not mean it’s any less detrimental to their brain. Trauma is subjective, and that’s why we see some people reacting to the same type of trauma differently. For most, the factor that determines whether or not these traumatic experiences will impact them more or less, is their support system. I’ll give an example. If a child is abused at home, but they have grandparents or teachers that they spend time with who show them love and affection, or provide them with their basic human needs, that child is less likely to be as impacted by their past, and can move toward healing a lot faster than a child who is abused at home, is neglected by other family, is an outsider at school and possibly bullied, and has no one who can really provide them with any sort of emotional support. These are the kids who struggle in school, they have difficulty with relationships, they are more likely to engage in risky behaviors like drugs, alcohol, and unprotected sex, and are more likely to die at a younger age because of these behaviors. 

I will talk more about adverse childhood experiences in a future post because there is a lot of data about how trauma impacts adults, but because there’s so much, I wanted to give it it’s own post. I do, however, want to leave you with one video to watch.

In this 15 minute video, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris talks about how childhood trauma is not just a mental health problem, it’s a public health crisis and any field of health should think differently about those who have experienced any form of trauma. 

Many times, people ask me how I’m seemingly sane, considering my past. I don’t do drugs. Okay, maybe I smoked some marijuana when I was in high school, but I never tried anything else or even wanted to try anything else. I am not an alcoholic, nor do I really even drink anything alcoholic anymore except for the occasional glass of wine. I have good blood pressure, no other health risks, cholesterol levels are seemingly ok, and I have never had thoughts of committing suicide. Some of you may be reading this and rolling your eyes thinking about how I must be so lucky (said super sarcastically, of course). But I don’t think it’s luck at all. I have not always been consciously aware of the causes of my trauma, and I spent all of my teenage years, and early 20’s in a perpetual state of anger. I wasn’t always “sane” or whatever people want to call it. I felt broken. I was mad at everyone all the time. I was reactive. I couldn’t control my anger. I was blaming other people for always making me do the things I did because I didn’t know how to react other than how I had seen other people react. There was no communication in my house. It was one person controlling everyone and if you didn’t do what that person wanted, you were belittled, hated, shunned, for however long it was necessary to get their point across. It took me a lot of years of practice to heal, and I’m still not fully healed, but I finally feel like I can mostly control my reactions to people and things that I feel angry about. I don’t think anyone can learn these things overnight, especially if you don’t have anyone close to you that knows how to help. Sometimes, you have to get help on your own, either by reading lots of books or with therapy. That’s what I had to do, and I’ve been working on my mental wellness since I was 22, and I just turned 36. So, with all that said, just because you have a traumatic past, it doesn’t have to define who you are. You don’t have to die early, or suffer from constant stress. The great thing about healing your mind, is that it can also heal your body. You just have to be willing to understand the causes of those feelings, and work hard. I mean really hard to forge a new path for yourself. Trauma doesn’t have to be an early death sentence and It definitely doesn’t happen overnight. If you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, just take my situation into consideration…I’ve been working on healing my mind for 14 years and I’m just now starting to feel like I’m “okay”. But don’t get me wrong, there are still days I don’t feel okay, but I don’t let those thoughts stick with me. I take it one day at a time because that’s all we really can do. Everyone heals and processes their trauma in different times and in different ways. I want anyone who is reading this to know that there are people who you might think are okay, but inside they might not be. Maybe they are still healing, or maybe they have spent a lot more time healing. Try not to compare yourself to someone else. Just focus on you and your own healing and you will get there. You can do it. You will do it. One day at a time. 

Make sure to leave a comment about your experiences, ask questions, or make suggestions for future posts that you’d like to read. Also, share and go follow us on instagram @youarenotyourtrauma. Thanks for your support. 

**Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. I do extensive research on the subjects that we talk about because I am becoming a mental health professional with the intention of helping those who have experienced trauma learn to cope throughout their life. If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, or are currently in treatment, please see your doctor with any medical questions.**