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Why we respond differently to traumatic events

Have you ever wondered, “Am I just being dramatic? Was that event as challenging as it feels or am I too sensitive?” This is a common question for people seeking help to recover from difficult experiences. Some of the self-doubt comes from comparison with others who don’t seem to be as rattled after an event. Or from comparing what has happened to us with something even worse. We can invalidate our own reactions or underestimate the impact that an experience has had on our mental health and feel that we shouldn’t need help to recover.

The reality is, there is NO hard and fast rule for which events are traumatic vs challenging! Imagine a group of people who’ve been through the same adverse event – a natural disaster for example. Each of them is likely to struggle with difficult thoughts and feelings immediately afterwards. Following any stressful event there is usually a period of trying to make sense of the experience and working to get back to everyday life. Some might take a few days to return to normal functioning. Some might need a few weeks and the support of their friends and family. Others might go on to develop trauma symptoms or other mental health concerns and require professional support.

So, what factors influence where a person will find themselves on the continuum from challenged to traumatised? Research has identified several factors that exist prior to an event that will increase the likelihood someone will develop PTSD or other mental health concerns.

  • Pre-existing mental health conditions (e.g., depression, anxiety)

  • Low levels of social support

  • Thinking styles that are more helpless and depressive (e.g., believing that they can’t cope, going over and over stressful experiences from the past)

  • Coping with stress though avoidance (e.g., numbing, disengaging, dissociation, wishful thinking)

  • Being more prone to negative emotions

  • The amount of stress in the person’s life

  • Previous traumatic experiences – these can have a cumulative effect

Previous trauma and other psychologically harmful experiences may impair the sympathetic nervous system and stress pathways in the brain. Studies have shown less volume in the amygdala and hippocampus in people who’ve experienced trauma in childhood. And people with these structural differences are unfortunately, more likely to develop trauma symptoms following adverse events in adulthood. And naturally, childhood trauma is also likely to impair thinking and contribute to avoidance as a coping strategy.

There are additional factors that come into play during and after an event that influence recovery:

  • Worrying about reactions to the event (e.g., worrying that struggling to bounce back is evidence of psychosis or unacceptable weakness)

  • The extent of injury, threat or deprivation

  • Experiencing multiple sources of trauma

  • The amount of difficulty or stress that the incident has caused

As you can see, there are lots of factors that determine whether a person will bounce back quickly, take some time to recover, or have ongoing mental health challenges following an incident. The important thing to note is that, despite all of this, recovery is possible. In fact, many survivors of traumatic experiences point to the possibility of post-traumatic growth. For those who become traumatised, including PTSD, there can be a profound and positive shift in beliefs, relationships and approach to life. Conversely, those who bounce back quickly are unlikely to have such a shift as there is not the same drive to re-evaluate life and meaning.

Curiosity, or cognitive exploration, is at the heart of post traumatic growth. It refers to how fully we explore our emotions and beliefs – in this case after a negative event. Without pressure from the outside to rethink, we tend to continue with our existing beliefs and actions. Traumatic experiences have the capacity to open us to new ideas and compel us to create new lives.

The goal of trauma therapy is to harness this growth energy but often this needs to come after the traumatic event (or many events) has been ‘reprocessed’. There are a few different methods for reprocessing, but the common aim is for the memory or feelings associated with the event to be held in the brain in a more normal fashion. Traumatic memories, whether they are visual, emotional or body sensations, tend to be intense, intrusive and distressing. Reprocessing therapy provides a way for the brain to integrate those memories and bring a greater sense of empowerment and wellbeing.

We would encourage anyone considering trauma therapy to discuss it with their GP or talk it over with a mental health practitioner. We’re excited to be providing training in the gold standard treatment for trauma, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, for our whole team in November 2022. We look forward to helping many more clients recover from trauma and to live their lives fully.

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