Your Trauma Responses: Friends, Foes, or Both?

A colleague of mine, Erin Ramsey-Tooher, has written this wonderful piece for my blog exploring the nature of trauma responses. Erin has practiced interventions for helping people through the aftermath of trauma for years and has done such an amazing job here summarizing symptoms many survivors experience. Trauma lives in all of us differently so some of this may resonate and some of it may not – that is ok! Your experience is unique. –Rachel Stanton

Erin Ramsey-Tooher

If you’re engaged in trauma therapy or considering reaching out to get some support, chances are good that you’re experiencing some symptoms of PTSD. While we know that no two people respond to trauma in exactly the same way, there are some common responses that many survivors share. Experiences of re-experiencing (e.g. nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts), hyperarousal (e.g. anxiety, panic attacks, racing thoughts, always feeling on alert for danger), or hypoarousal (e.g. feeling numb, checked out, depressed, low appetite) are incredibly common, and for many people, can make continuing to engage with everyday life feel challenging or even impossible.

In my clinical work, I often find myself reminding clients that these responses are “normal and expectable” responses to what they experienced. But what does that actually mean? How could these symptoms possibly be seen as adaptive? And does that mean they’ll be part of a client’s life forever? (The short answer is no – but let me explain.)

Consider, for a minute, the experience of hypervigilance, or always feeling on alert. For many clients, this “symptom” is their body’s way of trying to keep them safe – as if by constantly scanning the environment for threat, or being on “high alert,” the body can keep the trauma from happening again. The result is that clients often report high levels of baseline anxiety, racing thoughts, an increased startle response, and even panic attacks – which are really ways their bodies are trying to cope with what happened and protect them from future threat. Trauma therapy can help re-orient the nervous system to calm this response and help clients use their preferred, more helpful coping strategies instead.

On the other side of the spectrum, many clients report feeling numb, checked out, low energy, or even dissociated at times after trauma. During the moment (or repeated moments) of threat – that is, during the trauma they experienced – these clients often report that they felt they “left their body” in order to survive, generally without any conscious effort. Over time, their nervous systems have created a “short circuit” to this coping strategy, so they begin to check out, numb out or even dissociate when even a very low level of threat is perceived. We can implement “both/and” thinking here: while dissociation can be both incredibly annoying and, at the extreme, actually dangerous, it also generally exists because it aided that person’s survival in the moment of trauma.

For many clients, part of the work of trauma therapy is gaining insight into these responses – to understand how they were formed, when and where they continue to manifest, and how your body might be trying to protect you from continued threat, whether real or perceived. Once we have more insight into when and how a particular trauma response is operating, we can thank it for its service in helping you survive and ask it to take a small (or large!) step backwards so that you can implement your preferred coping strategies instead – ones that will serve you in your preferred way of living.