Mental Health: How Trauma Shows Up in Our Lives

You might think you haven’t suffered from trauma. You might think that your life is unmanageable because of external factors or other people’s faults, or the system etc. We’ve all been hurt, to different degrees, and even small hurts over time cause harm to our mind, body, spirit and soul. Many end up hiding deep in the shadows, never seeing the light of day again. These painful experiences cause us to develop coping mechanisms and if not addressed develop into long term behaviors that make life harder than it needs to be. When brought to the surface and healed they can become our strength, resilience and even life purpose. 

Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash

In the work I’ve been doing over the last 8 years, I’ve seen first hand how trauma shows up in people’s homes, how they spend their time and their relationships to themselves, others and the world. I have yet to have a client who’s disorganization gets resolved with the right storage solution or time management tips. Their chaos, dissatisfaction and inability to change ALWAYS stems from unhelpful coping behaviours and missing certain life skills that weren’t taught. 

What is Trauma?

A traumatic event can be an experience  that is any or all of the following:  too much, too soon, too intense, or for too long.  Anyone can be traumatized when in a situation that creates feelings of powerlessness and extreme fear, physical or moral injury to self or others. These different experiences can be divided into two groups:

Interpersonal: being in a relationship where there is any form of abuse (ie. sexual, physical, emotional)

Environmental: being in or witnessing  events like a car accident, natural disasters, medical procedures, combat/war etc.

It’s important to note that emotional abuse comes in many forms, including neglect. And not just the kind of obvious neglect  where a child is completely left alone to fend for themselves. It can be as subtle as dismissing a child’s emotions or a parent working a lot.,. A lot of the time, from the outside, everything can look perfectly normal: there is food on the table, the family goes on lots of fun vacations together or one of the abusers has an important status in the community. However, looks are deceiving and often it’s the accumulation of small paper cuts that cause harm over time. 

It’s important to understand that experiencing trauma and not getting any help to process and heal from it then causes us to behave in a way that is not true to our authentic selves. In order to feel safe and in control we adapt behaviours that helped us cope with whatever was going on in the traumatic moment(s). This then continues to put our bodies in stressed states causing us to live in our dorsal vagal system and sympathetic nervous system. These systems put us in flight/flight/freeze/fawn or protection mode where we are unable to connect with ourselves, the world or others. 

Stages of Healing

The Parish Processing Model describes stages of healing from trauma and I’d like to explore how these can look in our everyday lives, particularly with my specialty: clutter, chaos and lack of time. 

Stage 1 – Anchor Trauma 

This is the first traumatic experience we have, usually when we are young. I love the analogy that Bobbi Parish gives. Here a boat represents ourselves and the chain and anchor represent the hold trauma has on us. The anchor is the initial trauma. The large boat drops its’ anchor into the water so that it can dig deep into the ground and hold itself a float in the unsafe waters. The chain stays connected to the boat and when subsequent experiences that are similar or re-traumatizing occur that chain gets rattled. Our boat gets rocked in a most uncomfortable way.. 

Stage 2 – Denial 

Denial is a place that many people live for most, if not all of their lives. Remembering the trauma is too much, and the brain and body want to protect from any more harm. This is common for children (and even adults) in order to cope, they literally forget the incidents, but they remain deeply buried in the unconscious.

The other side of denial is to downplay the event and to minimize the pain and effects it’s had on you. A typical phrase I hear often is: “Oh, that kind of behaviour was just normal back then.” Again this is a way to protect, because it’s too much to deal with. Both acknowledging and admitting to the trauma means you have to feel and accept that it has happened, that it was not normal, wanted, deserved or justified. 

Stage 3 – Chaos vs Rigidity 

Does your life ever seem completely unmanageable? Either because you always seem to have drama and chaos or because you have high standards of structure and rules. Both make it impossible to be happy and healthy and neither are sustainable.

In both cases you are likely recreating your childhood environment. Did you live in a home where there were lots of rules, expectations and a need for perfectionism? Or was it chaos swinging in different ways. In both cases there was a sense of uncertainty, unsafety and being on edge. Moving through this means taking an honest inventory, seeing where you can be more flexible and developing healthy coping mechanisms. 

Stage 4: Recovery  – Disconnection, Reconnection and Integration

When we experience trauma, especially in our childhood, it causes us to disconnect from our true selves in order to stay safe. We do what we are designed to do: we adapt to our environment, even if this environment is toxic and dysfunctional. New research also shows that it affects the communication between right and left side of the brain.. So the right side (emotions) can’t work with the left (thinking) consistently to process emotions and experiences properly. 

One definition of recovery is to reconnect the different parts of yourself that you’ve lost connection with, or banished into the shadows. These include our connection to our true authentic self, all the unwanted parts, our creativity, our needs and wants and purpose in life. to others and the world. Your views shift and you begin to feel more confident, calm and safe as you do the inner work with a professional that can help you unpack your past, process it and reconnect with all of your human complexity.

Stage 5: Discovery of Authentic Self  – Trauma identity vs Authentic self

Often people grow up in families where they couldn’t express their true emotions. If they did, it would be faced with judgment, criticisms and harsh punishment. When this happens, and again especially in childhood, we find ways to change to please others for acceptance, approval, and affection. This means turning into a chameleon to have our needs met and to be safe from those hurting us. 

Unfortunately this takes us away from having true authentic relationships with ourselves, others and the world. The world becomes a scary place where being ourselves is unwanted and outright dangerous. Through the healing journey with a trauma coach you can learn to feel safe again and express yourself and all your needs. You can set boundaries that allow you to stay connected to what matters the most to you and flourish in your reconnection to creativity and fun.

Stage 6: Post Traumatic Growth 

When we have the courage to begin unraveling our past honestly and make a commitment to healing it’s important to understand:

  • This is not something that happens in a week, month, or even a year. Healing is a lifelong journey.

  • There is no agenda, deadline or prescribed path and it’s uniquely yours.

  • Doing the hard work isn’t easy but it doesn’t mean life can’t be fun and joyous, it’s embracing all parts of life both comfortable and uncomfortable.

Trauma has become the new buzzword, and to be honest this is my biggest pet peeve, when really important topics become oversaturated to the point the meaning gets lost or overblown. Don’t let the word scare you or shy away from it. I personally prefer to help people and myself focus more on educating on how the past effects our current life and ways you can grow and transform to be in rhythm with who you really are deep inside.

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