Monday, March 24, 2014

The Impact of Traumatic Events in Our Life: Healing in the Aftermath

by: Darcy Minick, Masters Candidate and Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych.

Are you struggling with the after-effects of past traumatic experiences in your present day? Many of us will experience at least one traumatic incident in our lifetime --- an unpredictable, out of the ordinary experience or incident that yields overwhelming helplessness, fear, powerlessness or intense isolation from others. The emotional residue of these traumatic incidents can wreak havoc inside of us, and interfere with our capacity to be intimately engaged in our important relationships. Traumatic incidents can shatter our sense of self and identity and our sense of the world around us.

In this post, we will provide you with some basic facts about trauma, and how these difficult life experiences may be affecting your life in the present day.

The good news though is that trauma can be healed. As Peter Levin has put it: “Trauma is a fact of life. It does not have to be a life sentence ... And there are so many things that we can do in prevention and healing."

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

In the fields of medicine, psychiatry, clinical and counseling psychology, two different diagnostic categories have been used to understand trauma:

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) develops after an overwhelming life experience, such as accidents, war, abductions, sexual assault and violence, or natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes. These types of traumatic incidents involve us experiencing either actual physical harm or the threat of physical harm to ourselves.

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Complex PTSD) results from stressors that may have occurred repeatedly and chronically in our lives. Sexual or physical abuse, often from early in life, over the course of childhood and in the context of the family, domestic abuse or military deployments into dangerous locales can all be causes of Complex PTSD. 

As a result of these experiences, our bodies and minds employ their natural defense systems --- our fight, flight, freeze responses --- to offset the threat. It is important for us to be able to eventually relinquish this natural defense system and return to normal levels of emotional and physiological arousal in our bodies --- that allows us to feel safe in the world again. Our ability to do so, however, can be impaired as a result of momentary or chronic traumatic experiences. Traumatic experiences can create a basic rupture, or loss of connection --- to our self, our family, and the world around us. Instead, we can be left with a sense of danger, insecurity, and disconnection in our lives. Restoring a sense of safety and security, learning how to make sense of the traumatic experience that we’ve endured, and re-connecting to our self and others again in the aftermath of this incident is critical to the healing process. Without such healing, many physical and psychological symptoms can emerge in our lives.

Common Symptoms of Trauma

Physical reactions can include the following:

  • Bodily aches and pains
  • Sudden sweating and/or heart palpitations
  • Changes in sleep patterns, appetite, interest in sex
  • Easily startled by noises or unexpected touch
  • Tensions that some people will soothe with the use of alcohol or drugs and/or overeating

Emotional reactions can include the following:

  • Flashbacks --- feeling like the trauma is happening now
  • Feelings of guilt and shame
  • Fear and/or anxiety, or depression
  • Attempts to avoid anything associated with trauma
  • Hyper-alertness or hyper-vigilance
  • Feelings of detachment, or dissociation
  • Inability to trust self or other
  • Upsetting memories of the trauma, or lost memories
  • Suicidal thoughts

How Can an Unresolved Trauma be Healed?

"When treated thoroughly, healing can lead not only to symptom reduction, but long-term transformation.” Peter Levine.

People are usually surprised when they begin to understand that some of the psychological and physical symptoms they have experienced are caused by previous traumatic experiences. Many people will get through this period with the help of family and friends, and the support of a therapist.

Here are some tips on how to cope, or diminish emotional and physical distress associated with trauma-related symptoms:
  1. Mobilize a support system --- reaching out and connecting with others
  2. Commit to an exercise routine --- energetic exercise like jogging, aerobics, bicycling, walking --- can help modulate our natural defence system.
  3. Explore exercises and strategies to promote relaxation and diminish the impact of traumatic stress, including - breathing, relaxation, or exercise like yoga, stretching, massage hot baths prayer and/or meditation, listening to relaxing guided imagery, listening to music and viewing art or progressive deep muscle relaxation.
  4. Try to find humour and the brighter, lighter sides of life -- doing so can counter the negative effects of traumatic stress;
  5. Maintain a balanced diet and sleep cycle as much as possible, which includes not over-using stimulants like caffeine, sugar, or nicotine --- increasing arousal can create negative effects for individuals whose natural defence systems are in overdrive as a result of traumatic stress.

Psychotherapy is an essential component of your healing process. Research affirms that therapy can help you to process the intense emotions associated with traumatic incidents and diminish trauma-related symptoms.

CFIR's Trauma Psychology & PTSD Service offers individuals and couples assessment and treatment of different types of traumatic stress. A comprehensive psychological assessment is conducted to understand the psychological impact of trauma on an individual’s self-development and personality, his or her present-day distressing cognitions, emotions and behaviours, and relationship functioning.

We employ a phase-specific treatment model that integrates trauma-focused, cognitive-behavioural, psychodynamic, ego-state, mindfulness-based, and experiential strategies to address the debilitating symptoms associated with traumatic stress. Our phase-specific and compassion-focused approach allows us to develop customized treatment options that meet the unique needs of every individual or couple.

Read more about our Trauma Psychology & PTSD Treatment Service.