Surviving Trauma and Moving Forward

by 26Health Staff

Witnesses or experiencing terrible events can cause strong, distressing feelings. Sometimes those feelings linger and begin to affect our day-to-day, causing us psychological harm and even changing our outlook on life. These strong emotional responses to negative events are psychological trauma. Although normal, trauma can make it difficult to move forward with your life.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is the emotional response a person has to an extremely negative event. Trauma is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation and interferes with an individual’s ability to live a normal life. Trauma is frequently associated with being physically present at the site of a traumatic experience, but it is also possible to experience trauma after hearing accounts of a traumatic event from survivors, or watching videos or news reports of a traumatic event.

The effects of a traumatic event can last for weeks, months, or years because trauma changes the way our brain sees the world.

Symptoms of Trauma

Common symptoms of trauma include night terrors, irritability, poor concentration, mood swings, anger outbursts, panic attacks, difficulty concentrating, and depression. People who are experiencing a traumatic reaction often behave in ways that appear unpredictable, oppositional, volatile, or extreme.

Survival Mode Reflexes and Mental Protections

During a traumatic event, our brain goes into one of three survival modes: Fight, Flight, or Freeze. A person has no control over which mode they will enter. The choice is as involuntary as the choice to make your heartbeat.

While in one of these survival modes, the brain will become fixated on survival above all else. It will use fear to activate your superpowers. These superpowers cause your heart to beat faster, bringing more oxygenated blood to your muscles, ensuring that you can run faster, jump higher, and lift more weight than you have ever been able. This increased blood flow also makes you hyperaware of your surroundings; people often describe this as a feeling that time slows down.

Disassociation, or mentally separating oneself from an experience, is a coping strategy that our brain can use to protect us during a traumatic event. Disassociation can lead to a perception that a person is detached from their body, floating above it, or somewhere else in the room observing the action of their body without being emotionally able to participate in the experience. Some feel like they are in a dream, an alternate reality, or as if the experience happening to someone else. In some cases, memory loss can occur due to disassociation; leading to gaps in a person’s memory timeline.

Exiting Survival Mode

One common misunderstanding about trauma is that our brain can turn off “survival mode” the very moment that we are out of the mitigating experience. That is not true because our brain can remain in survival mode for weeks, months, or even years. It can remain in survival mode until it determines that we are consistently safe and no longer facing perceived threats.

In order to experience safety, we must have all of our basic physiological needs met. This includes: eating regularly, sleeping soundly enough to rest our body, and experiencing a general feeling of personal safety. It is also important for us to feel loved, cared for, and needed. The last requirement is to experience moments where we are emotionally present in our bodies and experiencing joy.

Overcoming Trauma Little by Little

For many trauma survivors, the healing process is best summarized by this quote from Mary Anna Radmacher “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.” As a community, we must recognize trauma survivors’ courage, appreciate their journey, help them when they struggle, and celebrate their victories.

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