We’re surrounded by news reports about the tragic things that happen in our world.
War, catastrophic floods, hurricanes wiping out entire villages.
These things are so devastating we call them ‘traumatic’.
We understand that word ‘trauma’ to mean something BIG.
Something visible, with long lasting effects.
If you’ve ever experienced anything like that, you know what trauma feels like.
But you might be surprised to know that what counts as a ‘traumatic experience’ is much broader than you thought.
You might be shocked to learn that trauma is happening all around you.
There are people you know who’ve experienced trauma.
Sometimes in small and invisible ways, yet still as devastating.
And it’s only when we understand the truth about trauma that we can start to deal with it’s impact on all of us.
So what is trauma?
Trauma can be said to be any frightening or distressing event that overwhelms our ability to cope.
We tend to think of trauma as a huge, single event like your house burning down, or the death of your child.
But that’s only one kind of trauma.
Trauma can also be small incidents, that on their own would not be a problem.
But when repeated, time and time again over several years, they add up to be a big problem.
Trauma happens when our basic sense of safety is damaged or missing.
Incidents can happen at any time in our lives that threaten our basic sense of safety.
But these traumatic experiences are especially damaging when they happen in childhood.
When we’re young, we rely on our caregivers to look after us.
We rely on them to reassure us that no matter what happens, we’ll be ok.
If our parents are unable to do that, for whatever reason, then we suffer as a result.
These are some circumstances that can result in ‘trauma’:
- If you were bullied in school, and had no one to talk to about it, or to stick up for you.
- If one or both of your parents was highly demanding of you, expecting perfection in everything you do.
- If your mother was critical, giving you offhand remarks about your physical appearance or your abilities in some way.
- If she didn’t understand your sensitivity, and was cold or unloving in situations where you really needed support.
- If you had to stay quiet and creep around the house, not making any noise in case one of your parents got angry or violent.
All of those things count as traumatic experiences.
Physical scars heal, but emotional wounds last forever.
You might have witnessed your parents arguing a lot, maybe throwing things or even hitting each other.
You might have been hit, or scolded, and not understand why.
Physical scars heal, but the emotional wounds last forever.
If you grow up in an environment where there is constant emotional tension, that’s hugely draining and frightening.
Especially if you’re sensitive. (I’ve written more about this here)
And that’s a form of trauma.
If being ‘yourself’ would threaten your basic sense of safety – that’s traumatic.
If you don’t conform to established ‘norms’, then your basic safety can be at risk.
If you feel alienated and outcast because of your skin colour, your religion, your sexuality or your gender.
Living with a feeling of being ‘other’, and not belonging.
Being the subject of ongoing insults or harassment.
If there’s no guarantee that you’re going to be ok, no matter what happens.
Especially if you don’t have supportive people around you.
Those experiences are deeply traumatic.
“Trauma happens when our basic sense of safety is damaged or missing.“
But my childhood wasn’t THAT bad.
You might look back on your childhood and think
“It wasn’t so bad”
“Other people had it much worse”
“My Mum did the best she could”
All of those things might be true.
Our parents do the best they can, in the only way they know how.
And sometimes that’s not good enough.
It wasn’t good enough to prevent you from being traumatised.
And there are lasting consequences in your life, because of how you were treated.
That’s not your fault.
I’ll say that again.
Just because other people had it worse, does not mean that you should just ‘sweep it all under the carpet’.
What happened to you in your past was traumatic.
How you were treated had a lasting impact.
And it’s not your fault that you’re still struggling with things even now you’re an adult.
What’s the impact of trauma when you’re an adult?
We all need a basic foundation of safety in order to grow up emotionally and mentally healthy.
If your basic sense of safety was missing in childhood, you get the message that your caregivers don’t love and respect you.
Then you learn not to love or respect yourself.
Without a foundation of safety, we grow up feeling like the world is an unsafe place.
We’re not able to trust that people are generally good and will look out for us.
And that means we might struggle to form secure relationships.
It leads to attracting people who are similarly traumatised,
and we end up being re-traumatised.
It leads to not being able to have healthy boundaries.
We might be left unable to protect ourselves from the harmful actions of others (either verbal or physical).
There are widespread effects of living through trauma, which may be affecting you in your current life.
We can’t erase what happened in our past, but we can repair some of the damage that was done to us.
We can start to give ourselves what we would have needed.
And we can learn how to give ourselves an experience of real safety.
How can we give ourselves a basic sense of safety?
Here are some steps you can take to feel a sense of safety:
1. Learn how to inhabit your body.
Feeling safe starts in our body.
Learning how to inhabit your body is key to being able to feel safe.
Being fully present in your body starts with feeling grounded.
Feeling connected to the earth beneath you.
To ground yourself, try focussing on your feet:
- Feel your feet on the ground,
- Wiggle your toes
- Roll your feet from toes to heels, feeling the floor under you.
(There’s some more tips here
and here )
2. Notice your inner critic or your ‘mind chatter’.
You might not realise it, but you’re living with a constant barrage of negative thoughts.
We all do it.
It’s a fact of being human.
You might not realise it, but you’re probably thinking your thoughts ‘outloud’.
But it’s all going on inside your head. (weird, I know!)
Next time you’re in a stressful situation, or things are not going to plan:
- Stop what you’re doing.
- And listen.
- Listen to what you’re thinking.
It might feel hard, or even impossible, to catch your thoughts.
But the more you practice, the easier it will become.
Here’s the story of how I found my own inner critic.
3. Start a regular journalling practice
Every day, take some quiet time to write down your thoughts, feelings and experiences.
Don’t edit or try to get it perfect.
Just be an active witness, and write down whatever comes to you.
Like a ‘mind dump’ of what’s swirling through your head.
Just a few words or sentences.
To express what’s going on for you.
It might seem boring.
You might feel like you’ve got nothing to say.
But when you do this consistently, things start to shift.
You’re establishing trust and intimacy with your own thoughts.
You’re letting yourself know that you’re listening.
And that creates safety.
Being able to trust that we’re safe in the world, is a key goal in recovering from trauma.
Once we establish our own internal sense of safety, we can begin to trust ourselves.
When we can trust ourselves, we can learn how to trust other people.
Trusting ourselves and others, allows us to create healthy boundaries and healthy relationships.
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