Trauma: How It Kills You [And How To Heal]13 min read

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I’ve always wanted to write about trauma because it is something that eventually affects (almost) everyone to some degree as they grow older. As kids, most of us were mostly oblivious to the degree of pain and suffering that exists in this world. For example, when someone dies from a freak accident, is murdered, or drinks bleach and dies horrifically, we are told that “God took them”, “They are in heaven”, some other better sugar-coated variant, or nothing at all. We are not given the unpalatable details. In Nigeria, the only tangible thing we get is a plate of food from the burial ceremony. For our little minds, death was more or less something pleasant.

Our first taste of the horrors and sufferings of life was most likely from movies,  insect bites, and common illnesses. Then we go on to break a tooth or more. Then comes more scary injuries like nose bleeds, and broken bones. And, from there it doesn’t take long to really understand what it means for someone to suffer or die – to be gone forever. But of course, all these were nothing compared to the later realization that things like torture and rape exist. And, even though this might scare us; most of us never think much about them. Thankfully, most of us will never experience them firsthand. 

However, if you live long enough, bad things will eventually happen to someone close to you; and no one will spare you the horrific details (because you will ask for it).  Whether you like it or not, you will get to experience trauma at some level. But, first, what is trauma?

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is an unpleasant psycho-physical response following an event (or series of events) that was perceived as a threat to a person’s physical or psychological well-being and surpasses their ability to cope (handle or adjust to it).

Think of it like being bitten by a snake. The initial bite may sting for a split second, but that is not the killer. The venom, which takes minutes or even hours to slowly deteriorates the cells and organs is what kills. So also, a traumatic event may last a few seconds or minutes and be unpleasant on its own, but it is the effects of it over the months or years that slowly wreck the traumatized person (i.e. the person who experienced the traumatic event).

What Are The Three Stages/Phases of Trauma?

Trauma experience can be broadly split into three phases: The experience/event, the response, and the recovery.

The Traumatic Experience: What Causes Trauma?

The traumatic experience is the event or series of events that the traumatized person was exposed to. Such events include  

  • war,
  • abuse, 
  • assault, 
  • accident, 
  • incarceration,
  • serious illness,
  • natural disaster, 
  • witnessing a death, 

And so on.

But, this does not mean everyone who experiences these events get traumatized. Some people are more resilient than others, and that can be ascribed to a lot of factors such as genetics, beliefs, and personal traits (such as optimism and emotional stability).

Where Can Trauma Occur?

Trauma can occur anywhere, including at home (domestic violence and abuse), in schools (bullying and shootings), in shopping malls (robbery and assassination), and even on social media (cyber harassment and bullying). However, there are places where the likelihood of it occurring is significantly higher. For example, those who work in trauma centers, customer care service departments, combat zones, or brothels. 

A friend once told me how she broke down in tears whilst on a call with a customer who kept abusing her for over 30mins non-stop. She would later inform me that they were trained to mentally channel all the abuses they receive from customers to the Logo of the organization they worked for. So that by not personalizing the abuse, they could sail through a storm of trauma-level events mostly unscathed. But, it’s easier said than done.

My friend’s story is not unique: there are dozens of stories out there of people who work as content moderators for companies like Facebook or OpenAI, who get traumatized from all the graphic and horrific content (such as executions, child pornography, and worse) they have to review all day, every day.

And, we’re not even talking about what happens in the war zones (shootings, explosions, mutilation, etc.) or brothels (rape, battering, etc). 

Can You Have Trauma From Someone Else’s Experience? 

Yes, sometimes people get traumatized from learning about other people’s trauma. This sort of trauma is called Secondary Trauma or Vicarious Trauma. For example, empathetically listening to and caring for someone who had just survived a traumatic experience can lead to intense emotional distress. 

The chances of this happening rise exponentially if you work in an emergency service, where you have to constantly find and attend to people who have experienced such awful events. 

There is also the danger of getting traumatized from seeing pictures, videos, or music that depict traumatic experiences.   

The Trauma Response: What Does Trauma Do To a Person?

This is the person’s psychological and physical response to the event. The immediate response to a traumatic event can be shock (immense fear or panic) or calmness (denial or acceptance). While the longer-term reactions may include chronic anxiety, depression, mood swings, flashbacks, avoidance, hypervigilance, and random unpredictable emotions to name a few.

But, why does this happen? Why do the person’s mind and body seem to be thrown into pandemonium following experiencing a traumatic event?

Well, it is quite complex, and I can’t unpack everything here. But the short answer is: it affects the person’s body and mind. 

Physical Effects:

When someone experiences the event, their brain’s stress-handling capacity is overwhelmed, and their minds switch to, (and sometimes get locked in on) the “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. And, in response, the body starts to release stress hormones such as cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline – which are known to put the body in an agitated state. 

And, when the body remains in this agitated state for a long time, it starts to wear and tear the body – wreaking havoc on the cardiovascular system and immune system; and also negatively impacting their metabolism, brain activities, as well as the aging process. The result of these includes a drastically increased risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, infections, depression, faster aging, age-related health problems, and so on. This effect is known as Allostatic Load.

Cognitive and Emotional Effects:

Following a traumatic experience, the person may naturally realize some unsavory facts, or feel many strong emotions. For example, if a loved one dies in their arms, they may feel an overwhelming sense of helplessness, powerlessness, anger, and even guilt (which all happen to be the formula for depression and suicide). 

Another example is if a person gets raped (worse, repeatedly), they may feel a sense of powerlessness, anger, hopelessness, guilt, shame, and worthlessness (which can then fuel distrust, anxiety, irrational fear, depression, and avoidance behavior). All these make it increasingly difficult to function properly at home or work following the incident.

I read a news that was published a few years ago in which the victim cried “I have difficulty getting enough rest. I sleep and wake up drenched in sweat, even when it’s cold. I consistently experience nightmares”.

Unlike seeing a horror movie and forgetting the story within a few weeks, traumatic experiences don’t get stored in the temporary memory; but rather get engraved in the implicit or procedural memory – which is a form of long-term memory that doesn’t require any conscious effort to be retrieved and utilized by the body. 

For instance, when you learn to ride a bicycle, that experience gets stored in the implicit memory and that is why your entire body knows how to automatically/instinctively/unconsciously adjust and adapt just to keep you balanced on a two-wheeled contraption. So also, trauma gets the person to automatically/instinctively/unconsciously act in counterproductive, self-sabotaging, and limiting ways. 

Worse, experiencing either the physical or cognitive toll of trauma, does not spare someone from experiencing the emotional toll of it. It’s like the two heads of a puff addar, both lethal and simultaneous in action.

The Trauma Recovery: How Do You Heal Yourself From Trauma?

Trauma recovery is the process of healing (or reversing) the physical, emotional, and psychological impacts of a traumatic event. This usually involves restoring that sense of order – safety, stability, and well-being – in the individual.

“You survived the abuse, you’re going to survive the recovery.”

– Mariska Hargitay

Healthy Ways To Recover From Trauma:

There are many proven ways to go about trauma recovery. Some of those ways include;

  • Therapy,
  • Self-care,
  • Medications, 
  • Meditation practices

Etcetera

Depending on the severity of the trauma, a person may be rushed to a trauma room, given medications, prescribed therapy, and practice self-care and meditations over time till they fully recover. In order words, using one way doesn’t stop using another. 

What is not a solution however is trying to ignore or deny what happened. Time does not heal trauma, it only represses it. This is because trauma is not a physical injury, and is stored in long-term memory. It’s a cognitive and emotional scar that influences how you act and perceive things, and may continue to (subtly) hamstring your life until you resolve it. And, even when trying to resolve trauma, the time required varies drastically between individuals, with many never fully recovering from the experience.

Maladaptive Trauma Coping Mechanisms:

It is also important to avoid trying to repress or cope with trauma through maladaptive ways such as;

  • Substance abuse: Like using drugs or alcohol to numb the feelings or to escape the memories, leading to addictions and worsening your mental health 
  • Self-harm: Like hitting, cutting, or burning parts of your body to temporarily release emotional pain, leading to physical harm and other long-term negative consequences.
  • Avoidance: Like avoiding people and things that bring back traumatic memory, leading to isolation and loneliness, which worsens the effects of the trauma.
  • Risk-taking: Like reckless driving, having unprotected sex with strangers, or starting fights to help release pent-up internal tensions, leading to physical harm, legal issues, and other consequences
  • Negative self-talk: Like self-blame, self-loathing, or self-criticism, as a way to rationalize or justify what happened, leading to more negative emotions and exasperation of the trauma effects
  • Overcompensating or overindulging: Like bingeing or stress shopping can lead to other long-term health complications, financial issues, or other problems. 

Factors That Influence Trauma Recovery:

It is important to state that recovery from trauma can be influenced by a number of factors including; 

  • the severity and duration of the traumatic event, 
  • the individual’s past experiences (past traumas make one more susceptible to future trauma),
  • the individual’s genetic predisposition, 
  • the individual’s personality traits (traits such as resilience comes in handy), 
  • the individual’s mindset (mindsets such as optimism, “amor fati”, and a sense of meaning and purpose are very useful),
  • the availability of social support, and 
  • the individual’s willingness to seek help or support.

A few years ago my Dad died in my arms. My response was neither shock nor denial. He was deathly ill so death was a possibility. However, I didn’t leave that deathbed unscarred. 

Apart from the sleep paralysis and weird vivid dreams of him, I got increasingly angry, sad, and nihilistic. I even quipped about it to my brother, telling him I now understood why people overreact – why they express so much anger even for the most trivial of things. 

My self-awareness of my present state of mind nudged me to sit down and write down how I truly felt. I sat down in front of my computer and hammered away. I narrated all that happened during the time of the illness and exactly how I felt about him, my siblings, and even God. I felt a sense of relief. Then and there I understood what it means when they say writing is therapeutic. 

But, of course, that was not all. I made out (more) time to speak with friends. We got a lot of condolence gifts and visitations, and those constituted a sort of self-care (or more correctly, community care).

Most people can recover from trauma on their own simply by taking care of themselves. And, recovery doesn’t necessarily mean complete freedom from the effects of the trauma, but the ability to live without being crippled or tormented by it. But, if this takes too long or the experience is too intense talk to a mental health professional.

And, some people even grow wiser and more empathetic following the recovery. But, it all starts with admitting you’ve been hurt and need healing.

“Trauma is hell on earth. Trauma resolved is a gift from the gods.”

― Peter A. Levine

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Conclusion: “Everything Is Going To Be Fine”

I’ve had different people cry real tears on my shoulders. Life can be hard and confusing at the same time. Sometimes there seems to be no break to the downpour of pain and misery. But there are. Yes, life throws misery, but it also throws joy and opportunities, sometimes. The struggle is letting go of the hurts, so we can capture the happiness

I’ve often caught myself saying, “It’s going to be fine”. And, I say it because things usually turn out fine for people who persistently do the right things – things that genuinely heal their souls. So, embrace the healing process. Everything is going to be fine.

I enjoy writing long-form SEO content for self-help and personal development blogs. I can also do simple graphics design and copywriting. I’m an author, coach, logician, introvert, and storyteller. I love simplicity.

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