Many of us can think back on distressing events that dramatically altered the course of our life. Events such as, the loss of a loved one, being the victim of violence or abuse, near death experiences etc. Our experiences of life are unique, so how we react to these events differs from individual to individual. What is important is how we move forward from them.
How trauma affects the mind and body
With the war raging in Ukraine it has forced many of its people to take refuge in foreign lands. While conducting research about the psychological interventions available to those that were directly impacted by the war, I spoke to Marilyn Adan, a counselling psychologist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, to get a better understanding of the importance of trauma resolution and the possible ways of treating it.
You can listen to the full podcast below:
When a person is confronted with a traumatic situation, they respond to it in different ways. Adan points to three ways people react in such a situation.
“We respond with fight, flight, or freeze which is mediated by our brain. It acts on your autonomic nervous system preparing an individual for fight, flight, or freeze mode.”
She continues, “A traumatic event triggers the brain to send a message to your adrenal gland to produce adrenalin, which raises your heart rate and blood flows into your muscles in anticipation of a flight or fight response”.
“When the trauma or danger has passed, the body should go back to its normal state of relaxation and regeneration.”
Some people are able to process this trauma, allowing their body to achieve this stasis. However, some cannot effectively process these events.
People normally associate trauma with the psychological impact the event will have on an individual. In truth, a traumatic event can also affect the person’s physical health along with their mental health.
If the body cannot achieve this stasis or state of ‘relaxation and regeneration’ the hormonal imbalances that result from the shock created by the event, can lead to harmful physical effects.
Adan simplifies this, stating, “These events raise stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, in the body. If the body cannot return to a state of relaxation, the long term effect of this is not only mental problems, but physical illness as well.”
“Anything that is affected by this imbalance, like how you breathe, how your heart beats, how you sleep, all these are affected. Individuals develop hypertension, which leads to heart complications.”
This is why confronting and addressing trauma is so vital. But doing this is not a simple process. The difficulty of doing such leads many to avoid the issue. As Adin puts it, “When things are so overwhelming that they don’t know how to resolve it, so they suppress it. Put it in a black box.”
If the trauma is never resolved, the healing cannot begin.
Through my research on the matter, I discovered that over 200 unaccompanied minors have arrived on the shores of Ireland. As can be imagined, being young and separated from your family in foreign land would be a traumatic for most people. Within this context, I asked Adin about experiencing trauma during the formative years of one’s life.
She states, “When a person experiences a traumatic event, such as a war, there are different kinds of trauma. Acute trauma results from immediate danger. Then there is chronic trauma, where the same sort of trauma is ongoing, such as growing up in an abusive household. Then there is complex trauma. This occurs when there are different traumas impacting an individual at the same time”
She continues, “This complex trauma could be seen with people who have fled the war in Ukraine. Their world has been turned upside down. There is a constant feeling of being unsafe, an uncertainty of what tomorrow will bring.”
Within the context of children having to flee the war to a foreign land, she said “Some of these children have experienced vicarious trauma from seeing things no child should ever see. The problem is that it is so difficult for children to process what they are seeing. The adults may try help them process this, but they themselves are traumatised.”
The trauma does not necessarily end once many of these families reach sanctuary. Starting life anew in foreign land in conditions of uncertainty, puts incredible strain on the family unit. For many of the parents finding employment and the financial security it provides is difficult. While they may try their hardest to provide security for their family, this stress is easily transferable to the children.
Speaking about the children growing up in these uncertain and stressful environments, Adan stated, “For the kids that grow up in this environment, mentally, physically, cognitively, their development is affected. It almost becomes hardwired in their DNA. New studies are showing that trauma is being passed on to future generations, making it hereditary.”
There are a number of psychological treatments available to people who are struggling with trauma resolution. Adan lists a number of treatments that she has seen to be effective.
She said, “you have interventions, such as trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy. It is more trauma focused, and it starts with helping individuals feel that they are in a safe space”.
It involves the psychoeducation about what the individual is experiencing and the realities of it. Once they understand the complexities of this they can learn coping mechanisms to help them overcome it.
For young children, she cites play therapy as a very effective treatment for both the confirmation of the presence of trauma and the treatment of it.
She says, “Play is a child’s normal way of communicating with themselves, with others. If you give them freedom in their play room it allows them to express themselves, the traumas they have experienced, and provides a way for them to get it out of their body.”
There are a number of other therapeutic interventions available. However, she cites the above mentioned therapies as the most successful in helping individuals resolve their trauma.
While the lucky few may have success in resolving trauma themselves, many others avoid reaching out for help and suppress the emotions associated with these events instead of addressing them. This could be due to the stigma associated with seeking psychological help and others may not have access to effective mental health care preventing them from getting the help they desire. There are state provided facilities and organisations that may be able to provide help, such as the National Counselling Service. Seek help if you need it, don’t put your emotions in the black box.