Feeling Overwhelmed? You’re Not Alone.
Updated: Apr 4, 2021
Are you feeling the symptoms of trauma?
Maybe you have been feeling overwhelmed, feeling sad or anxious. Maybe you’ve felt detached, disconnected, or angry. Or perhaps you’ve just noticed you are not yourself. If this describes you, you are not alone. There are more than 120,000 American’s dead due to COVID-19 and millions more infected. Countless Black men and Black women have been killed or brutalized at the hands of our criminal justice system. Millions of families across the planet living with domestic violence and child abuse are forced to stay-at-home with partners and parents who use physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, and emotional abuse as tools for power and control over them. You are not alone. The events taking place in our country over the last six months are contributing to the highest reported numbers of Americans seeking mental health support in history. The constant sense of fear, the constant exposure to loss of life from illness or police brutality, living with systemic oppression and unpredictable family violence are all factors contributing to our collective and individual trauma as a global society. How do we know when too much is too much? How do we know when we need help? How do we know when our trauma starts affecting the ones we love?
Here we try to answer some common questions about trauma.
It is our response to events (traumatic events) that are profoundly distressing and overwhelms our abilities for coping. This leads to disorder and dysfunction in our daily lives. What we may not realize is that this impact on our functioning affects how we interact with the people in our lives. This is because the symptoms of trauma are three fold: emotional, behavior, and cognitive.
Emotionally there may be overwhelming feelings of fear, anger, shame, guilt, self-doubt, sadness, anxiety, or many others.
Behaviorally, isolation, aggressive outbursts, being jumpy or scared easily, nightmares or trouble sleeping, overeating, loss of appetite, or any sudden change in interacting with the environment that is out of the ordinary for us.
Cognitive symptoms have to do with the way we think. Intrusive unwelcome thoughts and memories, negative self talk and self perception. These symptoms are any distorted thinking patterns that result from the traumatic event changing our core beliefs. If trauma comes from the belief that we will be irreparably harmed, then trauma symptoms are the brain’s way of “looking out” for the same or similar events.
Trauma symptoms are designed to keep us alive. If these symptoms are too severe they can lead to dysfunction and disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD and Acute Stress Disorder, among others.
What causes Trauma?
Different events can cause trauma. People may experience individual or cultural traumas. Individual traumas range from experiencing intimate partner violence / domestic violence to an assault, such as a mugging or rape at the hands of an acquiantance or stranger. Childhood trauma such as physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or school shootings and even witnessing something violent happen to another person such as Dranella Frazier, the teenage girl who recorded the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers are examples of individual trauma. There are also traumatic events that impact whole communities, populations, or countries. Acts of terror like 9/11 or surviving wars and genocide. Experiencing a global pandemic or weeks of civil unrest. Generations of systemic oppression cutting off avenues of developing safety and generational wealth. Any of these events on their own can be traumatic. In 2020, we are experiencing multiple highly distressing and disturbing events at the same time.
Can trauma be passed down?
Simply put, yes. Individual trauma and cultural trauma can impact future generations. It has been found repeatedly that children with parents who have high stress or traumatic events are more likely to develop mental health issues. There is still a lot of research that has to be done to fully understand why this is, but they can be broken down to the age old battle of nature versus nurture. Do our genes control how we live and experience the world? Or is how and by whom we are raised more important?
We know that trauma can change the way our genes copy themselves during cell replication and as result changes the way genes are expressed. Scientists are trying to understand what this means about the genes we pass down to our children. This is the “nature” in nature versus nurture. The “nurture” has to do with the behaviors of a parent who has had traumatic experiences, being impacted by those experiences and passing down knowledge, knowingly or unknowingly, to their children. In Black and Brown families in America “the talk” with children, references safeguarding from police brutality in addition to sexual education. These are examples of transgenerational transmission of trauma, of life lessons designed to do what all trauma symptoms do, keep us alive.
Are there trauma treatments?
We know psychological trauma changes the brain. Traumatic experiences affect the structures of the brain that: processes memories, regulates emotions, calms the body, solves conflicts, and uses logic. It can be scientifically measured and observed. It is not a matter of toughness or inner strength. It’s not all bad news though! The changes can be reversed! Coping with traumatic events is not something you have to do alone. Therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT has been shown to be one of the most effective treatments for trauma. There are many other proven methods for treating trauma symptoms and working with your therapist on a self-care routine focused on support, connection, and other techniques can enhance the effectiveness of treatment.
It’s important to know that any trauma therapy should move at the client’s pace. It’s okay if it takes a while before you’re ready. It’s hard work! What cannot wait is if you are having thoughts of harming yourself or other people. Contact your therapist or the national suicide prevention lifeline if you are having thoughts of suicide or harming others. Call your local emergencies services (911/EMS) if you or others are in immediate danger.
Written by: Gissell Reyes, Ma, Ma, LAC, NCC