Trauma: The Common Cold of Mental Health

If I asked you what the most common problem therapists see is, what would you say? Depression? Anxiety? While these affect millions of people each year, they’re certainly not the most common.

The answer is trauma.

Research suggests that up to 90% of people will go through a traumatic event during their life. It also says that most people will experience three traumas throughout their lifetime, and about 22% of school-aged children have experienced four or more different types of traumatic events.

Additionally, seeing something traumatic happen to someone else can be just as hurtful as being the victim (think “kids watching one parent beat up the other”).

When I say trauma, I’m not talking about the everyday stuff that we sometimes call “traumatic” (no, the barista getting your Starbucks order wrong is not traumatic). I’m talking about car accidents, abuse, rape, war, sex trafficking – all the things we know happen but don’t want to think about.

Past Trauma Affects the Present

Before I go any further, I want to point out that resilience is the most common response to trauma. For most people, experiencing something traumatic does not result in symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Sometimes, however, trauma can continue to hurt us even after the event has passed. Trauma can affect the way that we think, feel, and relate to others.

The reason this happens is that trauma can change the way your brain works. Yep, trauma can make the most critical organ in your body operate differently than before the trauma happened.

When we are in a life-threatening situation, our brain tells our body to fight, run away, or freeze. We fight our way to freedom, run away to safety, or freeze so we don’t feel what’s happening to us.

These are all good things. Our brain is doing what it was designed to do – keep us alive.

Unfortunately, sometimes our brains keep our bodies in survival mode, even when our world is entirely safe.

Your Brain on Trauma

Trauma affects many parts of our brain. For example, the front part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) is responsible for thinking logically. When we’re in a traumatic situation, we don’t have time to reason. Instead, we need to react as quickly as possible to make sure we survive. During a traumatic event, your prefrontal cortex shuts off, so you respond out of instinct, not out of reason.

Sometimes after a traumatic event, your prefrontal cortex will continue to shut off when something reminds your brain about your trauma. You may not be able to think clearly when this happens and will react with emotions, not logic.

Another part of your brain is called the “amygdala.” It acts like your brain’s smoke alarm. When it senses a threat, it tells the rest of your body to react as if something terrible is about to happen. After trauma, your amygdala sometimes keeps saying that you’re in danger even when you’re not. When this happens, you feel panicked and have the urge to run away.

Trauma can also have some nasty consequences on our health. People who have a high number of traumatic experiences are more likely to experience depression, smoke, drink dangerous amounts of alcohol, and commit suicide.

Trauma can even change the way we see the world. The book “The Hunger Games” provides a great example of how trauma can change your worldview. For those of you who haven’t read “The Hunger Games,” the basic premise is this: The book is set in a country called “Panem,” which is divided into 12 districts and ruled by a harsh government called the “Capitol.”

Every year, the Capitol selects one male and female “tribute” from each district to fight to the death. This competition is called “The Hunger Games” and is full of lethal traps, deadly creatures, and 23 other tributes trying to kill you.

Sounds scary, right? Now imagine growing up in The Hunger Games, surrounded by threats and dangerous people. You’d constantly be on edge, always ready to fight, not knowing who to trust.

But one day, something unexpected happens: you’re pulled out of The Hunger Games and placed in normal society. People expect you to get a job and relate to others as if nothing ever happened.

That would be impossible, right? This is what it’s like for someone who grew up experiencing abuse or other trauma. They have a reason not to trust others and not to feel safe – growing up, nobody and nothing was safe.

There are thousands of people with experiences like this. Some of them are probably your friends or neighbors. You may even be someone with a story like this yourself.

So, What Can We Do?

It can be discouraging to think about how common trauma is, but there are several things we can do to help fight it.

Awareness about trauma is a significant first step. Knowing that trauma is so prevalent gives us eyes to look for it. If you see something, say something. You may be the person who helps someone get out of the “Games” and onto the road to recovery.

If you have a loved one whose been through trauma, be patient with them. Many of their symptoms are because their brain is still in survival mode, trying to keep them alive. Your support may encourage them to get the help that they need.

And finally, if you’re the person who’s been through trauma, whether it’s one event or 1,000, I want you to know that there is nothing wrong with you.

You are not broken,

You are not damaged.

You are not crazy.

Your trauma is not your fault.

I am so sorry for whatever happened to you. Your body keeps reacting to trauma because it was not designed to handle this much stress – trauma was never supposed to be part of your story.

If you need help rewriting your story of trauma, please reach out to The Circle of Care. We have several resources to help you no matter your situation and we are always ready to listen.

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