I was in a car accident several years ago.  Although I walked away physically unharmed, I remember for several weeks after the wreck every time I got into my car I felt anxious and uneasy.  My stomach would flutter, my chest would tighten, and I would be on edge for my entire commute.  Anytime I had to stop quickly or someone in another vehicle cut in too close, the moments before my car accident would replay vividly, unconsciously my grip would tighten on the steering wheel and I would prepare for impact.  As time passed, my uneasy feelings subsided, and I could not recall the moments before the accident today if I tried.  Although this is a rather benign story, one which many have experienced, it illustrates how a stressful event can alter our physical responses and thoughts.   

The brain is a complex organ that has all sorts of connections throughout the body to ensure that we are able to survive and adapt to the environment.  After my car accident my brain kept telling my body that the vehicle was unsafe and that I needed to be prepared to react.   This caused me to have an adrenaline rush every time I was driving and was “triggered” by something that reminded me of the accident.   The adrenaline gave me all sorts of physical reactions and increased my feelings of anxiety.   Thankfully after a few weeks of driving without incident my brain began to calm and was able to fully rationalize that the car accident was a singular, or rather uncommon, event and the physical responses ceased, and my anxious thoughts subsided.    

But what if after the accident my brain kept telling my body that “you are not safe” and “stay on guard.”  Being in a constant state of panic and having adrenaline pumping through your body has a damaging effect on your physical health and mental well-being.  Although I only endured it for a few weeks, imagine never being able to break this loop.  This is often what is occurring to people who have experienced trauma.  If the brain and body are constantly on high alert and we are reliving the trauma every time we are triggered, it becomes our present-day existence.  We become stuck in a vicious loop, feeling on edge and unable to differentiate between a real or perceived threat because our brain is telling our body to respond the same way regardless if the threat is real or imagined.   

Not everyone will have the same reactions after a car accident that I described, and people will endure difficult life events, and some will be “traumatized” while others seem unaffected.   Emotional trauma is defined as “an experience that overwhelms and surpasses ones’ ability to cope.”  The ability to cope is unique for each person which can make it difficult for people to understand and empathize with those who are dealing with trauma.  Most of us can think of events that would surely overwhelm anyone, like being abused as a child, enduring a sexual assault, or serving in a combat zone, but what about something less commonly termed “trauma.”   Perhaps the loss of a beloved parent or losing a job that provided you with financial security and self-worth.  These types of events can cause unimaginable emotional pain, anxiety, and grief and every time the brain is reminded of the event it responds by sending signals throughout our body that cause distress and put us in a state of panic or detachment.  

Most people will experience an event throughout their lifetime that will surpasses their ability to cope, so how do we get out of the loop that this trauma may creates?  Sometimes, like in the case of my car accident, time will help the brain reset and slowly begin to come back to equilibrium.  In other cases, distance from the events may not be enough.  Our ability to recognize and accept how impactful the event was and how it may be shaping our outlook, impacting our emotions, and affecting our physical well being is an important part of the process.  Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk, author of “The Body Keeps the Score” said it best when he wrote “As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself…The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.”   If any of what I have written resonates here are a few tools to start the healing process.  


After a trauma it is important to seek out connection with those who have been safe and supportive in the past.  Sometimes that means sharing your experience with someone who will listen and allow you to be honest, angry, heartbroken or completely numb. It may also mean just being with those people without talking.   It may take effort and feel uncomfortable, but connection is such a dynamic part of our existence and it can help in the healing process.  


Trauma has this way of changing our inner dialogue.  We may start telling ourselves things like “you will always feel this way” and “nothing you can do will change the way you are feeling.”  All of this is not true.  It is so important to be aware of what your inner voice is saying in response to the trauma as this is impactful to our ability to move past the events.  Know that trauma is intense, but there is help and healing.   


After a traumatic event take extra time to do the things that brought you joy before the event.  Physical activity can also help relieve some of the physical reactions you are experiencing.  In order to maintain our resilience in the face of traumatic events we need to take care of our physical health.  Emotional trauma causes distress to the physical body and it will need time to recover.   After a physical injury the doctor would advise you to rest to allow you to heal, the same applies for emotional trauma. 


Seek out therapy. A therapist can help you process through the trauma and identify stuck points.  Therapy will help you build your coping skills and ensure that your thoughts are not causing you additional distress after a traumatic event.   Finding a local support group for people who have experienced similar events may also help you process the experience.  Seek out support within your local church or community groups.  

Laura James, MS LPC



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