Surviving Trauma Doesn’t Make You An Expert on Healing

Congratulations, you’ve survived your trauma. Now it’s time to heal from it.

My childhood was pretty traumatic. I say pretty before I say traumatic because I’ve convinced myself that it takes the sting out of things. But generally speaking, candidly speaking, my childhood wasn’t full of memories you’d want to remember. Sure, growing up with nine siblings was fun (sometimes) and there were lots of other kids on my street to play with, but there were also lots of late-night shootings, gang-related deaths, violent attacks, armed robberies, rapes, and unsolved crimes happening on a consistent basis. My pretty little childhood gifted me a pretty little anxiety disorder to go along with my pretty big trauma. But as time passed and the trauma appeared further away in the mirror of my memories, my coping skills started to look a lot like more like character. I had forgotten how trauma hardened me into the person I became, I allowed myself to believe my experiences molded me into a stronger, tougher, more durable version of myself because that pill was easier to swallow. I had survived my trauma but I wasn’t any better for it, nor was I in any position to guide anyone else through theirs. I couldn’t hide the fact that I was wounded behind my wokeness or my womanhood or any other deflection. I had survived my trauma but that had nothing to do with healing from it.

Before we can deny having any of our own, let’s discuss what trauma truly is. Trauma, more specifically psychological trauma, is any deeply distressing or disturbing experience. That’s right, we’ve all got trauma. And just like physical trauma is an injury to the body, psychological trauma is an injury to the mind. The result of an overwhelmingly negative event, a serious of negative events, or overall negative circumstances, trauma is marked by an inability to integrate the emotions involved with the experience and/or cope with the stress of it. The effects of trauma on the brain are long-lasting, impacting the victims’ mental and emotional stability. And traumatic experiences can be just as much psychological as they can be physical, proving the brain to be much more sensitive that we’d like to believe. There are three main types of trauma, all of which impact the brain in their own special way. Acute trauma is trauma that results from a single negative experience, say a bad car accident. Chronic trauma is trauma that has been repeated and prolonged over time, fraternity/sorority hazing would fall under this category. And finally, complex trauma refers to ongoing exposure to varied, simultaneous traumatic experiences, the majority of which occur in a very invasive, personal manner. Children who experience the horrors of the American foster care system often describe what would be consistent with the definition of chronic trauma.

Generally speaking, no one makes it out completely unscathed. Some trauma is unavoidable, like the kind you sustain from experiencing a natural disaster. Growing up in poverty made my exposure to community violence unavoidable, this too is a form of trauma. Even random acts of violence and crime or the unexpected or tragic loss of a loved one can leave us dealing with uncopable amounts of stress, these common occurrences can also create trauma in the brain. Now, trauma is a part of life, both the physical and the mental kind. And while it’s wise to be vigilant about avoiding the avoidable kinds of trauma, it’s important to acknowledge that no amount of hyper-vigilance keeps us completely trauma-free. For that reason, it’s just as important to focus on establishing healthy habits for recovering from trauma, as it is to focus on avoiding the otherwise avoidable trauma, ideally trauma altogether. Just as we see doctors and medical professionals address our physical wounds, therapists and mental health professionals should be consulted about the wounds we suffer to our minds. And just like our untreated physical wounds can scar over or even fester if left untreated, our mental wounds, when left untreated, can create the same permanent disfiguration, only the disfiguration occurs in the actual brain matter and is much harder to see.

Now in order to heal, we’ve got to identify where the hurt happened which is why it’s so important to accept that trauma is unavoidable and universal. There’s nothing shameful about having experienced trauma, and there’s certainly nothing productive about denying it. But what’s even more of a hindrance is the refusal to talk about it, even with a trained and licensed professional. Think about it, when you go to the doctor, one of the first things he or she asks you is to describe your symptoms or whatever ailment you’re visiting them to discuss. And then they’ll probably go a little further and ask about your medical history, and then your family’s medical history, and then a physical examination can ensue based on that basic groundwork. Your doctor isn’t asking these questions to judge you for your mother having diabetes or lecture you on the dangers of having an occasional cocktail at the bar. They gather this information because it matters, it tells a very important part of the story, one they’re not privy to, and that’s how did we get to where we are with your physical health today. When it comes to psychological wounds, the backstory matters just as much, if not more, simply because there are visual tests to measure and asses, and pinpoint physical trauma and its effect on the body, even after it’s healed on the surface. Psychological trauma isn’t nearly as obvious and no matter how old the wounds are, they simply don’t scab over and heal themselves.

But someone told you time healed all wounds, right? And we’ve all believed that lie at some point. But the truth is that time doesn’t heal all wounds, time doesn’t even heal most wounds, time just makes wounds easier to live with. Trauma isn’t just stored in the brain, it changes the brain, altering various functions of it. One major area altered by trauma is the prefrontal cortex(PFC) or the brain’s “thinking center”. In a healthy brain, the PFC regulates problem-solving, planning, personality, empathy, and self and social awareness. In a traumatized brain, the PFC is underactive. Another affected area is the amygdala, which is the fear center of the brain. The amygdala, while out of our conscious control, acts as a screen door for potential dangers, scanning everything we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste for a potential threat. When a threat is assessed, the amygdala sends out a stress signal and this signal lets the rest of the brain and body know that it’s time to feel fear, be vigilant, and operate with cautiousness while the threat persists. In a healthy brain, once the threat no longer exists, the brain stops sending stress signals. In a traumatized brain, the amygdala is overactive, the stress signal is prolonged, sometimes ongoing, the person remains in a heightened, panicked, fearful state, whether an actual threat persists or not.

And in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), an area deep in the brain that partially acts as an emotional regulation center, difficult thoughts, feelings, and emotions are processed. Together with the prefrontal cortex, the ACC pretty much keeps our emotions in check, helping us to make rational, sound, safe decisions even in the face of complex emotions, and without becoming totally overwhelmed by them might I add. When the brain has suffered trauma, the ACC becomes under-responsive. What might be a frustrating drive to work for someone with a healthy brain could be a road rage incident waiting to happen for someone with a traumatized one. When these neural systems are functioning properly and in a healthy state, the higher areas of the brain, known as cortical areas, govern our decision making. In a traumatized brain, we see the lower areas of the brain, or the more primitive areas, governing decision making. This makes things like problem-solving, reason, and forethought secondary thought processes, while things like fear, agitation, anxiety, and emotion become the primary motivating thought processes.

So trauma doesn’t just make us feel some kind of way temporarily, it alters the way we process experiences and encounters from there on out. Surviving trauma doesn’t mean you’ve healed from it, it just means you know how to survive that particular trauma. If we look at the traumatized brain, everything about how it responds to trauma is with the goal of protecting itself from additional trauma, not dealing with the trauma that already exists. In order to process our existing trauma, we must actually process our existing trauma, and that means being willing to talk about those traumatizing experiences with licensed, experienced professionals and stick to the treatment that follows. What happens when you stop taking your antibiotics before the prescription finishes, that infection resurfaces. A partial prescription might address the symptoms but the full prescription gets to the root of the infection and therapy is no different. Mind you, treatment goes way beyond “Tell me what brought you here today” and “How does that make you feel”. We have a couch concept stuck in our minds when it comes to therapy and non-medical forms of treatment and it’s shaped our unwillingness to pursue actual treatment. We think that because we don’t take prescriptions or undergo any medical procedures the healing can’t possibly heal us. But we have to understand that reprogramming the mind is a much more delicate series of events than popping a couple of pills and feeling relief from our physical symptoms by morning. Not to mention, no two people heal the same, even when the trauma is identical.

Healing the mind takes time, and considering how fragile and vital the mind is to our everyday function, it’s time we should all readily take. If you’re reading this, congratulations, you have survived everything life has put you through up until this moment. You are resilient, you are durable, and if nothing else, you are a survivor and you should be proud. But now it’s time to heal from the memories that ail your mind, we all suffer them. And whether you’re aware or not, your trauma has changed you, for some of us our trauma now dictates who we are. We are all survival specialists trying to play life coach to one another while denying our own need for healing. But who wants to be fully adjusted to having an unhealthy mind? Healing is possible for all of us. The only prerequisite is the actual desire to heal.

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