Trauma

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Five Ways to tell if you are suffering from underlying trauma

We have all experienced trauma to some degree or another in our lives.

Traumatic events can involve:

  • Witnessing a car accident
  • Going through a difficult breakup
  • The death of a loved one
  • Happier occasions such as giving birth, although not always associated with being traumatic can also induce trauma responses

What is trauma?

There are plenty of ways to describe trauma; the internet alone is awash with information, some of it helpful, some of it not so much.

Perhaps the most helpful explanation is that trauma is a deeply disturbing or distressing experience.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA) trauma is ” an emotional response to a terrible event like a natural disaster, car accident or rape.”

Examples of trauma

As mentioned, trauma can occur for many reasons.

But, like anything in life, there is a spectrum which offers professionals such as therapists, mental health professionals and trauma specialists, the ability to assess the severity of each case.

Those with adverse childhood experiences (ACE), for example, are much more likely to be at the top end of the trauma spectrum.

The ACE’s include:

  • Physical, sexual and emotional abuse
  • A child witnessing their mother treated in a violent way
  • Substance abuse in the household
  • Loss of a parent
  • Mental illness

Types of trauma

There are several types of trauma, all of which are dependent on a wide range of scenarios – these include:

  • Complex trauma: The result of witnessing a variety of traumatic events
  • Chronic trauma: The effect of continuous exposure to disturbing events such as abuse, violence and bullying
  • Acute trauma: The impact of being exposed to single traumatic or dangerous events

Emotional symptoms of trauma

Emotional symptoms of trauma include:

Physical symptoms of trauma

Traumatic events can also create a physical response in the body.

In clinical practice, mental health professionals have identified ways in which underlying trauma gets expressed through physical symptoms – such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Sweating
  • Digestive problems
  • Fast beating heart
  • The person appearing to be on edge or jumpy

Complications

In cases where trauma is left untreated or undiagnosed, there can be a sequence of severe complications. 

The complications that can arise from unresolved trauma include:

  • Taking up substance addiction as a way of coping with any unpleasant symptoms
  • The risk of developing symptoms of PTSD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Brief Psychotic Disorder
  • Depression
  • Suicide ideation

It is essential, therefore, that individuals experiencing any of the emotional and physical symptoms above, seek the help and support of a mental health professional before their symptoms get worse.

Why people experience trauma

Most people are indeed entirely unaware that they are suffering from trauma at all.

Many put their symptoms and negative experiences down to stress which is often vague and unhelpful, particularly when trying to get to the core of the problem.

Fight or flight response

Traumatic experiences can cause a fight or flight response – which in some situations is extremely helpful (such as when you’re being chased by a dog or an attacker).

However, those with underlying trauma tend to get ‘stuck’ in hyperarousal, meaning that they are likely to feel anxious and depressed for months or even years without knowing why.

There might be no actual or threatened death imminent and yet, the individual has a sense of impending dread or doom, without any evidence of an external threat.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Those who have PTSD have some form of a stressful event or underlying trauma stored within the body- these experiences can lay dormant for years’ trapped within the sympathetic nervous system and the brain.

People with PTSD experience a range of symptoms that can be chronic, acute and appear out of nowhere.

Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Flashbacks
  • Hallucinations and nightmares of the event
  • Avoidance behaviours such as avoiding places and people associated with the event
  • Flat affect
  • Immoderate arousal – anger, fits of rage, increased alertness, difficulty sleeping and concentrating

At-risk groups

Traumatic experiences and events affect people differently and are mostly dependent on a variety of factors, such as:

  • Family history
  • Genetics
  • Co-occurring mental health conditions
  • Childhood trauma events
  • Having a history of substance abuse

The tendency to self-destruct

A stress response within the body tells us a lot about ourselves and what might be going on at a level that perhaps we cannot address or resolve on our own.

When a person experiences symptoms of trauma, they may drink their feelings away, or take drugs to escape the trauma symptoms.

It’s hard to say why some people experience severe emotional reactions to adverse events while others don’t. It is impossible to discern.

Trauma symptoms are extremely unpleasant for the person experiencing them, and these events can lead a person to self-destruct through abusing substances and other unhealthy ways of coping.

Five ways to tell if you are suffering from underlying trauma

Psychologists and mental health experts have identified several ways to tell if someone is suffering from underlying trauma or experiencing trauma-related symptoms arising from one or several life events.

These trauma-related symptoms include:

Anxiety

Life-altering events can lead to anxiety, particularly in trauma victims.

Dan Siegal coined the term ‘window of tolerance‘ which he used to describe a person’s comfort zone of arousal – this is where a person can function most efficiently.

Since trauma impacts the brain, the individual’s window of tolerance comfort zone shrinks, causing them to experience dysregulated mood states.

Anxiety takes place in the fight or flight response state of hyperarousal.

All this is not the typical type of nerves such as from a driving test or a public speaking event – increased episodes of anxiety in the long-term can wreak havoc on the nervous system, brain and immune system.

Trauma may sink our window of tolerance, but the good news is that there are effective therapeutic methods of increasing our window of tolerance, such as through EMDR therapy (eye movement desensitization therapy).

Addictive behaviours

Addiction is a surefire way to identify whether someone is suffering from underlying trauma.

There is plenty of research to show that adverse childhood experiences can lead to addiction in later life – such as:

  • Smoking
  • Drinking
  • Taking drugs

The Ace Study which was conducted in the 1990s by Kaiser Permanente and the Centre for Disease Control reported a correlation between those with high ACE scores and the propensity to take up high-risk behaviours such as drugs or alcohol abuse.

Addiction (such as when someone has a drugs or alcohol problem) gets distorted as someone having an ”addictive personality” when in reality the roots of trauma are disconnected by oversimplifying the problem or a complete misdiagnosis.

Sleep issues

Whether someone suffers from depression or is dealing with unresolved trauma, poor mental health can affect the sleeping patterns of an individual quite significantly.

Symptoms of trauma and depression can be so severe that they have the power to disrupt not only our waking hours but the time we spend resting at night.

Someone experiencing depression, for example, may have trouble sleeping or sleep too much. 

Since sleep is responsible for regulating mood, hormones, metabolism and energy levels – sleep disturbances can only exacerbate mental health issues further.

People with trauma-related symptoms (and those with depression) are more likely to experience anxiety and be more hypervigilant; this can create a vicious cycle of destructive sleep patterns that increase the symptoms.

Therefore, someone with insomnia or other sleep-related issues must seek help from a professional to resolve the problem.

Dissociation

Another way to tell if someone is suffering from trauma is when they become dissociated.

PTSD, mental health problems and traumatic events can trigger dissociation, which is the act of disconnecting or separating from ones’ self.

When a traumatic event occurs, the brain looks for ways to shut down from whatever it is that is happening at that moment.

People who have suffered child abuse, for example, can recall details such as the furniture around them, or the texture of the curtains during an attack.

Essentially, the brain shuts off in the act of self-preservation.

Those who have experienced dissociation also experience feelings of detachment known as depersonalization. 

All this involves feeling outside of one’s’ body or feeling detached from one’s’ surroundings (derealization).

Those who have experienced trauma tend to report feeling depersonalized both during and after a shocking event.

Struggling to come to terms with historical data

Someone who has experienced trauma will find it extremely difficult to recall the traumatic event (s) and incidence (s) that have led to them being traumatized.

Recalling traumatic memories is triggering and can increase someone’s symptoms, e.g. depression, PTSD and anxiety.

Those with intrusive symptoms such as intrusive thoughts are particularly susceptible to the long-lasting impact of trauma since these unpleasant thoughts can come out of nowhere and at a time when the person least expects it.

The trauma sufferer and the therapist must take time when it comes to exploring historical events.

Historical exploration must be conducted in an environment that is safe and trusting and that when reliving past events, the therapist enables his or her client with practical coping skills.

If someone can’t cope with the regression or reliving past events – this should not be a path that the therapist and the client go down until the relevant coping skills are in place.

Getting help

Whether someone is suffering from underlying trauma or the symptoms associated with a trauma-related event, they must reach out to a mental health professional who can help.

A traumatic experience can have a detrimental effect on all areas of our lives producing physical symptoms as well as emotional upheaval.

We all deserve to live to the fullest and mental health services such as psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, and 10 step programs are particularly helpful to those wanting to recover from the trauma of their past.

If you think you have any of the above symptoms – whether it be addiction, depression or symptoms of PTSD or trauma, it might be helpful for you to get in touch with a local support group or a mental health professional who can help.

At Tikvah Lake Recovery, we specialize in treating a wide range of mental health problems ranging from addiction, depression, anxiety and trauma.

Living with traumatic memories doesn’t have to be a way of life – there is help out there, and recovery is possible.

Childhood trauma and addiction

Borderline Personality Disorder: A link to childhood trauma

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a condition featuring persistent and ongoing patterns of varying behaviours, moods and a distorted self-image.

BPD can lead to a series of relationship problems as the symptoms of the condition often result in impulsive actions and drastic mood changes.

It is not uncommon for those with a borderline personality disorder to have intense episodes of anxiety, anger and depression that may last from a few hours to days.  

Sign and Symptoms

Those with a borderline personality disorder often experience intense shifts in mood and have an overall sense of uncertainty about how they see themselves and the role they play in the world.

Since having the ability to deal with uncertainty is an element of psychological well being, those with borderline personality disorder tend to suffer in extremes.

For BPD sufferers, everything (and everyone) is either good or bad. There is no middle ground.

Those with BPD often experience drastic and sudden mood changes, which can shape their relationships in negative ways.

BPD sufferers often change their perceptions of friends, lovers and family members quite frequently, leading them to either over love (idealize) or discard people according to their fluctuating moods and perceptions.

Some of the symptoms associated with borderline personality disorder include:

  • Impulsive behaviours such as substance abuse, unprotected sex and dangerous driving
  • Suicidal thoughts and recurring thoughts of suicidal behaviours or threats
  • Intense and highly fluctuating moods ranging from a few hours to a few days
  • Dissociation – this means feeling cut off from oneself, or a person feeling as though they are outside of their own body, and feelings of unreality 
  • Self- harming, such as cutting oneself or harming oneself in any way
  • Intense feelings of anger and an inability to regulate or control the anger

Other symptoms may include:

  • Issues with trusting others
  • Distorted perception of oneself including self-image
  • Unstable relationship patterns with relatives or loved ones which can swing from extreme like (idealization) to extreme dislike (devaluation)
  • Cutting people off to avoid future abandonment
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and activities that once were pleasurable

It is also important to mention that not every person will display each of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder. Some people may only experience a few.

Those suffering from BPD are easily triggered, events such as a temporary separation from a loved one or an event that might leave them with feelings of uncertainty can cause a trigger response.

The duration of an episode in BPD varies from person to person as does the frequency.

The link between childhood trauma and borderline personality disorder

Numerous studies have shown that childhood trauma leads to brain damage and can create altered brain wave patterns affecting the way a person sleeps.

One particular study conducted in 2012 found a correlation between altered brainwave patterns during sleep and adults with a borderline personality disorder.

The study illustrated that those with altered brain waves tended to suffer from insomnia more than a person without BPD.

It also showed that patients suffering from BPD took less time to enter into REM (a state of deep sleep where people dream).

BPD patients also had long periods of REM sleep at the beginning of the night, compared to normal sleep function where people enter REM at the end of the night.

The study hypothesized that BPD is likely caused by functional changes in the brain, through the balance of neurotransmitters or structural alteration of synaptic pathways.

Risk Factors

When it comes to a person’s Childhood, there are several risk factors for those with BPD:

  • Damaging parenting styles: This involves being exposed to a disorganized or dysfunctional household such as witnessing conflict and disharmony, even if the conflict between family members was subtle, children are very good at picking up on cues
  • Childhood trauma and child abuse: Adverse childhood experiences (ACES) are known to cause BPD – this is especially true if the abuse was from a close relative or trusted family friend. Although, not all children who experienced child abuse will develop BPD as other factors such as genetic resilience often play a role
  • Loss and separation: Since a person’s developmental bonding process was likely to be disrupted by either the death of one or both parents or separation of some kind, they are more likely to develop anxious attachment styles as adults. All this can manifest as a person being dependent, clingy, or, fearful later on 
  • Invalidating emotions: If a child is told off for crying, or made to feel guilty about being anxious or upset, they may resort to extreme measures to get the emotional validation they crave. This scolding might manifest as episodes of explosive anger and an inability to trust their feelings and perceptions as adults. All this is to gain the recognition they failed to receive

According to the University of Manchester, research shows that those with borderline personality disorder are 13 times more likely to report child abuse compared to those without mental health problems.

The report shows that 71.1% out of the 5,000 people that were studied, were diagnosed with BPD and reported at least one traumatic childhood experience with the most common form of adverse experience being physical neglect (found in 48.9% of cases). 

Genetic factors also play a big part in the development of BPD as studies of families (particularly in twins) have proven that there is a strong link between genetics and borderline personality disorder.

Other Factors

A borderline personality disorder is a common condition with over 20,000 cases a year in the UK alone. The condition can be lifelong or last for several years depending on whether a person has received treatment.

Treatment

There are a wide range of treatment options available for people suffering from borderline personality disorder. These include:

Psychotherapy

There are many different forms of psychotherapy, but most involve the patient coming to an understanding about themselves, their behaviour, and any patterns they might want to address.

Psychotherapy aims to seek a deeper understanding of the self and, ultimately, seek long-term resolution.

Essentially, the therapy enables those with BPD to develop a sense of control over their thoughts and behaviours.

Psychotherapy is usually delivered by a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health professional.

The duration of psychotherapy can last a year or longer, depending on a person’s requirements.

Dialectical behaviour therapy

Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) is a form of therapy designed to treat BPD.

DBT operates on the principle that the following two factors may have contributed to the development of BPD:

  1. The person’s emotions were dismissed in Childhood, and they were likely told that they were “silly” for crying or for feeling vulnerable in certain situations
  2. The person tends to be emotionally vulnerable and therefore low levels of stress tend to make them anxious

These factors can create a vicious cycle as an individual may experience intense and upsetting emotions and subsequently feel guilty and worthless for having them.

The cycle then comes full circle since the person was brought up to believe that having emotions is bad or shameful.

Self-fulfilling beliefs can become destructive as someone develops the sense that they must be a bad person for feeling the way they do.

DBT aims to challenge any unhelpful thoughts and beliefs that were created during the developmental phase in two ways:

1. Through validation: Accepting that emotions are acceptable, valid and real.

2. With dialectics: By banishing ‘black and white’ thinking styles, a person will eventually learn that not everything is as cut and dry as they were taught to believe.

This method teaches people to be more receptive and open to new ideas, thoughts and ways of behaving.

Dialectical behaviour therapy is proven to be very effective in treating those with BPD and those with a history of suicidal behaviour and self-harm.

Group therapy and counselling might also be alternative options for those seeking treatment for BPD.

Medication

Certain types of prescribed medications can help treat BPD, such as:

  • Certain antidepressants
  • Antipsychotic drugs
  • Mood stabilizers/anticonvulsants
  • Anxiolytics (anti-anxiety drugs)

Getting help

If you think you might be experiencing any of the symptoms associated with a borderline personality disorder, then perhaps it’s time to reach out and speak to a professional.

The team at Tikvah Lake Recovery are trained specialists who are always on hand to support you and discuss your treatment options. Contact the team today to find out how we can help.

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