Have I experienced trauma?


July 9, 2018

By Jordan Pickell

You might think that because you haven’t experienced combat, sexual assault by a stranger, a car accident, or a natural disaster, you have not experienced trauma. This common understanding of trauma makes hidden so many other types of trauma including abuse, dismissal, neglect, unpredictability, loss of control, manipulation, oppression, intergenerational trauma and the list goes on. Sometimes trauma isn’t one shocking event, but something that takes place over months or years. Sometimes it is hard to put your finger on what went wrong. You might wonder, was my experience bad enough to be considered trauma? Am I overreacting? Maybe people in your life have told you that it wasn’t that bad, that it was normal, that other people have had it worse, that it was a long time ago. Or maybe these are things you are telling yourself.
If you are wondering, does my experience count as trauma? People respond to these types of experiences in their own unique ways in order to cope, in order to preserve a sense of safety and dignity. Having said that, here are five signs you might be dealing with the impacts of trauma:

Difficulty managing emotions

You feel like you cannot handle your feelings– you might feel overwhelmed or completely shut down. Sometimes it can vacillate from one extreme to the other. One moment you are overwhelmed, then the next you feel numb. You get triggered easily by things that happen in everyday life.

Unexplained dread and/or feeling “on edge”

Your body responds to everyday experiences with a sense of danger. This is a way our bodies and brains help us survive– scanning for danger and helping us react quickly. The problem is when that danger signal no longer helps us because it goes off at times where there is no actual danger. It just gets in the way of navigating the world. You feel like you can never relax.

Despair and powerlessness

You feel hopeless and stuck. You may have a hard time imagining a better future. When you experience a setback, you give up easily. You feel powerless, which can manifest as being childlike– difficulty speaking up for yourself, doing whatever the people around you want from you, or on the flip side, it can manifest as being controlling of situations and in relationships.

Disconnection and isolation

You feel fundamentally different than other people, as if you are outside the human community. There is a simultaneous and desperate longing for and dread of connection with other people. You might feel like you are “dead inside”, a chronic feeling of emptiness.

Shame

You have a persistent feeling that something is wrong with you– you are weak, disgusting, worthless, or just a bad person. You might feel undeserving of support and care, which then gets in the way of seeking help.

Identifying trauma

Instead of asking “What is wrong with me?”, ask yourself “What happened to me?” We can identify experiences of trauma by looking at how you feel and how you respond to things. At the same time, the way you respond to your experiences is not something that is wrong about you. I want to push back on the idea that trauma is located in our bodies and brains. We must not forget the fact that so much of what we call trauma is the preventable violence and injustice that people and systems enact on other people. That is where trauma resides. In response, we develop different ways to survive and cope and that’s okay. If these ways are no longer serving you, seek support from a counsellor or therapist. In therapy, you can name what happened to you, identify the ways you have been impacted, develop new coping strategies, and help find healing however you might define that for yourself.

 

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