Trigger Warning: As you may expect, this post contains a lot of talk about trauma and the experience of being triggered. It mentions a number of potentially traumatic experiences and talks in detail about a significant car accident.
I've been involved in a lot of conversations recently about trauma – not just in client sessions but within the wider world.
Once upon a time that wouldn’t have been a big deal since the word “trauma” was thrown around like confetti. But now we seem to be much less flippant about it and reserve the word for deep, painful, honest to goodness trauma.
That’s definitely a positive, which puts the very idea of trauma and its impact upon us right at the centre of people’s minds rather than tucking it away in the shadows as has been done before. But I’m still not sure we’ve got this totally right just yet…
What do we mean by trauma?
If you’re anything like me, the word trauma will initially flag up a whole host of horrific things: child abuse, veterans of the armed forces or emergency services who’ve had experiences worse than nightmares on the job, and those who’ve experienced violent attacks of some kind for starters.
And it’s understandable that those things would come to mind first. After all, all of those experiences can be incredibly painful and complex examples of trauma, and are definitely the things we’ve heard most about when it comes to talk on that subject.
But that’s not to say that list – or in fact any other – gives a definitive idea of what should and shouldn’t be classed as trauma.
In fact isn’t it time we stopped invalidating the trauma that we’ve experienced and started recognising that some of the things we’re simply expected to move through and past on our own are actually pretty damned traumatic, even if we’ve been told otherwise?
A trauma can be anything we experience or witness that affects us especially negatively – be it an attack or long-term abuse from a friend, partner, family member of colleague; an accident or natural disaster; especially high stress because of illness, money or something else; the loss of someone we love or a million other things – how an experience impacts us is incredibly personal, so no list can be completely exhaustive.
My recent trauma trigger
A few weeks ago I went go karting for the first time in about 20 years.
Now, I remember that I wasn’t a huge fan the last time I climbed in a kart (although I’ll be honest – I was 15 and the guy running the track was gorgeous, it definitely convinced me otherwise), but this time around that discomfort was notched up a LOT.
Things started off OK – sat down in the car and put my foot on the pedal as I’d been told… but pretty quickly started to realise things weren’t OK.
I couldn’t breathe properly, my ribs hurt, and although I was driving pretty bloody slowly around a tiny little dirt track, every time the wheels lost a little traction on the surface I braced myself for serious impact and honestly wondered if I was about to die.
You see about five years ago I was in a pretty bad car accident – driving down a motorway at rush hour when the car in front of me stopped suddenly and I hit him, before the car spun out of control leaving me with a few broken bones (including my ribs) and an even more broken car.
Fortunately I got up and walked away and fortunately no one else was hurt. But in the moment the car was spinning around a busy road full of fast-moving traffic, I genuinely thought I was going to die.
For a while I’d experience those same feelings and flashbacks every time I got behind the wheel of a car. And although things have gotten much better in the years since, that feeling of being out of control behind the wheel was still enough to set off a real trigger.
At the end of the five practice laps I got out of the car and walked, shaking and emotional, back to my friends in the corner. But although it took me a good few hours to really come down from that feeling of fear, later in the day I actually found myself feeling massively empowered that I’d not only recognised those feelings for what they were, but that I’d also had enough self awareness to get out of the situation and give myself what I needed.
How do we know something was traumatic for us?
In honesty, there is no one size fits all rule for what can be classed as trauma any more than there's a definitive list of how you will feel in the moment of having a traumatic experience triggered for you, and the likelihood is that in the moment we probably won’t be able to differentiate between a trauma and something horrible we just need to get through.
But I guess we know by the bone-deep level of feeling it brings to us and by the way it stays with us long after the event.
In the case of those who go on to develop PTSD, that can lead to all manner of seriously unpleasant side effects, from nightmares and flashbacks that can seem so real it’s like you’re back in the moment of stress, to feeling detached, on edge or unsafe, to carrying incredibly negative thoughts about ourselves and to feeling – emotionally or even physically – in a particular awful way when those memories of trauma are triggered.
Those triggers can be based on all manner of things: specific feelings or experiences; particular physical touches; an argument or other unpleasant experience; seeing, smelling, watching or healing something; a particular place or date; people connected to the old experience or a number of other things.
It’s a complicated subject, and although I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject of PTSD, if it’s something you’d like to know more about I’d really recommend Mind's pages on the subject, "Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving" by Pete Walker to learn more.
What do we do when we recognise these traumas?
Just like the traumas themselves, the journey back from those triggers is – as you might expect – a very personal one, but it starts with understanding what those particular triggers are for you; when they happen, what’s going on inside and around you when they do, and what that feels like for you.
From there we can try to manage our environment to minimise exposure to those triggers where possible – doing what we can to reduce general stress in our lives or stepping away from the people and situations we know take us back to that place of trauma for example.
And when trauma occurs, we work on doing what we can to support ourselves – make us feel safe and bring us right back into the moment.
For me I’ve found that means breathing deeply, seeking out the support of my friends, and grounding myself into the moment with affirmations, a focus on my physical senses and the movement of my feet on the floor.
It doesn’t mean drinking to drown out the anxiety, trying to pass this experience off as my being ridiculous or numbing the fear I was feeling with food or some other mindless pursuit – all of which I did once upon a time before I started to validate myself.
And I guess that’s the point in the whole of this post; reminding you of the scope and scale of personal trauma not so that you can stick a giant label on yourself and one part of your life and feel forever a victim of that label, but instead to validate your pain, your fear and yes, your trauma.
To validate it so that you can remember that these moments of sheer panic aren’t you “being dramatic”, “living in the past” or anything else similar but are absolutely understandable. What’s more, although it may not seem like it in the moment, and although you may not be able to go back and wipe them from your past entirely, you can reclaim your power, and stop them from taking over your life in the present and future instead.