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Is Trauma a Part of Your Story?

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Some people know right away when they have a traumatic experience. Everything feels good enough, and then something happens and their world changes. They know they’re not the same now as they were before, and that change doesn’t feel good at all. They’re suffering as a result of their experience and they know it. If this sounds like you, there may still be a lot for you to learn to fully understand how the experience changed you and what may help you heal, but you’re ahead of the game in clearly recognizing that the experience changed you.

Some people don’t recognize immediately that they’re suffering as a result of traumatic experience. The distress may get encapsulated for a variety of reasons, all having to do with unconscious, automatic, adaptive survival mechanisms. The beliefs (I’m not safe, I’m not worthy, I’m not valuable), emotions (sad, angry, scared, ashamed), sensations (physical pain or discomfort), and information (this is what happened) may be encapsulated together or separately in the unconscious mind. They may not recall having the experience at all, or they may know they had the experience but don’t associate the unpleasant emotions or distressing beliefs they have now with that experience. This is often the case for people suffering from complex PTSD and dissociative disorders.

     

If you notice that you have negative beliefs about yourself, other people, or the world that are intrusive or extreme in any way, beliefs that seem more disruptive than helpful, these beliefs may stem from something you already experienced that still needs attention. If you notice that you experience emotional extremes, intrusive emotions, or intense emotions that don’t quite seem to fit what is happening right now or simply feel overwhelming, those emotions may stem from a past experience that still needs attention. If you have physical pain or discomfort that comes and goes, you’ve seen a medical doctor and ruled out any physical issues that need attention, it may be that those symptoms reflect trauma still stored in your body. If you tell people about things you’ve experienced and they’re surprised that you’re not disturbed, or if other people describe being disturbed by similar experiences and you don’t understand their distress, your experience may have had a greater impact on you than you realize yet.

     

We don’t have to know exactly what we experienced in the past that causes distress now in order to trust that some part of our suffering stems from experiences in the past that changed us. In fact, it can be counterproductive to try to pinpoint one experience or one set of experiences that are wholly responsible for our suffering. There may be some experiences, such as trauma in infancy, that you’ll never be able to recall with your conscious mind. Do notice what you’re able to notice – that’s an important part of building healthier connection with yourself – but please don’t feel like you have to know what hurt you in order to begin to heal.

      

I believe that as a species, human beings are traumatized. That doesn’t mean that everyone has PTSD or another diagnosable trauma disorder. My unscientific definition for trauma is any experience that compromises your core sense of safety. An experience that causes you to feel unsafe isn’t necessarily a traumatic experience, but when that experience compromises your ability to feel safe when you are safe, I would define that as a traumatic experience. And yes, there is scientific evidence that trauma experienced in previous generations can get passed down genetically to future generations. The good news is, PTSD and other trauma disorders develop because of something called neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to change in response to learning, experience, or injury. This change can be negative, positive, or neutral. Trauma clearly represents a negative brain change. Trauma recovery and post-traumatic growth are very real concepts that are possible because of neuroplasticity – the brain can change and heal. For some people, an important first step to trauma recovery is simply to realize that you have changed as a result of your experiences, and that some of this change contributes to the difficulty or suffering you experience now.  

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