By Carien de Klerk

Trauma has become a popular word in the everyday vernacular.  In education circles people are talking about trauma-informed schools and we also hear of trauma-informed cultures in workplaces.  Is it just another buzz-word, or is it important to know about trauma?

In the mental health world, we know how important it is to name something.  Naming an experience or an emotion gives us the chance to take a step back and make choices about what to do with it.  Without a name, we cannot be specific. A good understanding and awareness of what trauma is and its effects, enables us to be more specific in creating safe and supportive environments for those we share our lives with. 

But, experiencing a traumatic event, does not necessarily imply that you will experience trauma.

It is important to distinguish between trauma and a traumatic event. A traumatic event is an incident that is perceived as life-threatening and can cause physical, emotional, spiritual, or psychological harm. But, experiencing a traumatic event, does not necessarily imply that you will experience trauma.  For example, when you experience a threat against your life (like a car charging over a stop sign and missing you with seconds) your body instantly reacts and your stress bio-chemicals spring into action.  If you can react on the event, and your body can metabolise it, for example by screaming at the person and realizing you are safe, the chances are good that you will not experience trauma. 

Trauma happens, however, when you are left feeling helpless or powerless, with no power to change the threat that you are experiencing.  Acute trauma is when an isolated event occurred, and chronic trauma, complex trauma and intergenerational trauma is ongoing.

Initial reactions to trauma (that can include exhaustion, confusion, sadness, anxiety, agitation, numbness, dissociation, confusion, physical arousal, and blunted affect) are often seen as normal reactions to an abnormal event/s.  With appropriate interventions, our bodies are given time to metabolise the stress-response and we can process the emotions when we feel safe and connected to others. 

If we are not given that opportunity, however, especially if the trauma is ongoing, our nervous system can become stuck in a fight, flight, or freeze response. We can suffer psychological consequences like severe fear, anxiety, or depression, as well as an inability to form close, satisfying relationships.  Being trauma-informed then, means to realise the widespread impact of trauma, recognising the signs and symptoms of trauma and understanding paths for recovery.

  Being trauma-informed then, means to realise the widespread impact of trauma, recognising the signs and symptoms of trauma and understanding paths for recovery.

With an increased understanding of the effects of trauma, the hope is that more people will get the help they need.  When trauma is addressed, there is  a beautiful potential for post-traumatic growth to occur. This means finding meaning in the tragedy,  building a new identity, and discovering  sense of purpose and greater appreciation for life.  In the words of Lisa Prosen:

“What the world needs now is more compassion and less judgement.

More “I understand” and less “shame on you”

Then the healing of humanity will be more common than the suffering”

(If you want to get help for yourself or a loved one who suffered trauma, a good place to start is to see your local doctor – who can then refer you to a licensed professional who is trained in working with trauma. Or contact us at info@ghps.co.za or 021 8877913)

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