The effects of trauma distort how we see or even perceive our reality. The lines between reality, perception and feelings become murky.
By Charlene Waiganjo
During our lives all of us will be exposed to high levels of stress, traumatic stress or worse, a trauma experience or event. The good news is that approximately 80% of people have developed a healthy inbuilt resilience to manage stress and trauma and require minimal intervention to reduce and rebalance the effects of it. However, I find that most people do not know what trauma is. For many, it is a far-off phenomenon that will never manifest in their own lives or those close to them.
What is trauma?
In its simplest form, trauma is a memory of an event or experience that has not been processed in our minds. Instead of being processed, the memory is alive and well and is stored in our senses: our taste, sense of smell, hearing, feeling and sight. It can physically move around in our bodies and it affects the way we think about ourselves and others – it affects our belief system. If we don’t transform or process our trauma, we will simply transfer it onto others; for example: if you are angry, you will make others angry; if you are irritated, then you will irritate others, and so on.
What are trauma responses?
There are 4 main trauma responses and the most known ones are the fight, flight or freeze responses. These responses are automatically generated by our survival brain when we are under threat and are designed to protect us from harm and to literally survive. One cannot know which response you will have unless you find yourself in a threatening situation. It is important to understand that threats can be real or perceived – either way your body, your brain, your behaviours, will trigger a trauma response.
The problem with trauma is that we continue to live and function in a fight, flight or freeze mode long after the actual event and this is how we develop different mental disorders, like PTSD, addiction, bi-polar and eating disorders, anxiety, depression and so on. The various trauma responses reflect differently in our thinking patterns, our feelings and emotions, our behaviours and attitude.
How does trauma affect different people?
The development and growth of our brain starts at birth and is completed around the age of 24. During this time, our brain develops different capacities and capabilities, such as fine motor skills, development of imagination, language and comprehension, understanding of emotion, development of logic, intellect, thinking and problem solving.
At the point of a trauma experience or event, the brain development of emotion and logical thinking pauses. It is put on hold, so to speak, so that the brain and body can prioritize on survival. By understanding this, it becomes quite clear that children are more affected by trauma than adults, simply because they have not yet developed the necessary tools to express themselves, to comprehend and understand the links between emotions and behaviours, and so on. Furthermore, trauma will also affect women and men differently because of external influences such as culture, religion, socio economic factors and historical patterns that exist within families.
Trauma can affect us directly or indirectly. A good example of how trauma affects people indirectly, is found by looking at our first responders: our police officers, our doctors and nurses, and our teachers. This group of people are exposed to many different situations on a daily basis. Whereas an individual only has to deal with one set of trauma responses, the first responder has to deal with every single person whom they serve, as well as their own. This secondary trauma, and its effects and symptoms, are compounded and develops into different disorders evident in behaviours, attitudes, and emotional expressions. It is therefore, so important to empower our first responders to understand, process and deal with the effects of trauma within themselves so that they are able to continuously be in a balanced state to provide service to others.
Stages of healing and trauma healing approaches
Being a survivor and now thriver of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, I have been on the receiving end of many different trauma therapies. From my experience, I can attest that there is no one or no medicine that can heal you from trauma. It is something that only you can do, because to truly heal from trauma is painful and requires insight and introspection without inhibition. One of the stages of trauma is denial. For us to begin our healing journey, we need to be able to shift gears from denial to acceptance of the experience or event. Acceptance does not mean to forgive or forget. Forgiveness is critical, but it has to be understood and applied correctly.
Acceptance means acknowledgement: It has happened. It had an effect on me and continues to affect me today. The sequence is clear: there is a cause and there is an effect. Traditional trauma therapies tend to focus on the cause, the details of the experience or event. The most common therapy protocol in this category of intervention is EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing Therapy. It requires you to retell the experience in as much detail as possible whilst rapidly moving your eyes in an attempt to process, desensitize and reintegrate the trauma memory. This method does prove successful to some. In my personal experience it did help, but it did not heal me from the effects of my trauma experiences.
At Albain we use a different approach to healing: we use the Paul Boyle Method (PBM) that focuses on the effect of the trauma rather than the cause. We can never change the details around the cause, but we can control and deal with the effects of the trauma today. Albain has a holistic approach to healing: one that allows us to relearn and retrain ourselves in all aspects: how we think, understanding what and how we feel, how we behave and how we react or respond. Trauma is anything that happens to us, directly or indirectly, that we cannot process successfully. If we are highly stressed, a mere fender, bender, or argument with a loved one can become a trauma event or experience.
The effects of trauma distort how we see or even perceive our reality. The lines between reality, perception and feelings become murky. “The abnormal becomes normal and the normal becomes abnormal” – Paul Boyle. Trauma remains misunderstood by many – not only the people who suffer from it, but also the therapists and counsellors who attempt to help others heal from it. The litmus test for healing is simple: When you can tell your story without it bringing any pain or distress, you know it has healed.
Albain Company and Institute was founded by Paul Boyle, specializing in trauma and stress management. With more than 30 years’ hands on experience in dealing with war trauma, vicarious trauma and the human response to displacement caused by conflict, Albain uses the Paul Boyle Methodology ® in all its teaching curriculums and interventions for transformative change. Paul has taught extensively in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and North America – more than 33 countries in total. Albain offers workshops to corporates, NGOs, governments, leaders, families and individuals.
Originally from South Africa, Charlene has lived in Kenya since 2001. She studied accounting at the
University of Pretoria and Management at the University of South Africa. She started her career
with McCarthy-Online and developed a significant skill set in the creation of online e-commerce
marketplaces in both the business-to-consumer and business-to-business arenas. She served on
numerous boards in the Public Relations industry as well as assisting organizations to define their
market entry strategies into various African countries. She has over 20 years’ experience in
management positions in the Information, Communication and Technology sector. She changed her
career after the 2013 Westgate terrorist attack in Nairobi Kenya. Today she is a certified
motivational coach, director and facilitator at Albain Institute, which focus on leadership, stress
management, self-building and trauma healing. She is also the current Chairlady of SAWA and
Friends – the South African Women’s Association in Kenya and a founding member of KenSab- the
Kenya South African Business Network.
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Great article…I think a lot of people don’t recognize they have trauma until it is too late. Addiction of all kinds grow out of trauma.
Thanks, Joshua. Good point and sad reality. It shows the importance of more awareness on trauma and its signs and symptoms.
Thanks for this educative article!! Nice methodology. Thanks for sharing
Welcome, Nancy. Glad you found it informative.
This’s a thoroughly elaborate article on its subject. People are suffering enough from the various daily chores and demands for their attention. Covid-19 just added insult to injury. I agree: only concerted efforts could mitigate it.
Thank you. Indeed, COVID-19 is a major stressor among many people. Knowledge of these trauma healing approaches can be a game changer.