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A local mental health professional is sharing how trauma affects people's brains, and what can be done to move on from it.
"The word “trauma” gets thrown around a lot these days which is both beneficial and difficult," says Clinical Director of Recovery of Hope, Wayne Friesen. "Part of the difficulty is that almost everything that happens tends to be slapped with the label “trauma” which at times tends to reduce the validity of actual overwhelming experiences. The benefit, though, of hearing the word so often is that it helps normalize it and broadens the application of what may be included when we say the word trauma."
When people think of trauma, most go to extremes such as war, serious accidents, or intense abuse.
"While those certainly may be traumatic there are so many other experiences that can create trauma. A simple way of looking at trauma is experiencing an event as overwhelming. And with that definition, it’s important to recognize that trauma has way more to do with our perception of the event than the event itself."
Beyond what some people believe, a person cannot choose their reactions in moments of trauma. What happens is a result of people's physiology including prior experiences, other traumas, and their current capacity.
"The part of the brain that is typically very involved when we are overwhelmed is the limbic system. Your limbic system is where the bulk of emotional processing happens, traumatic memory is stored and a very important part of this system is that time does not exist here. That last part is important because when a traumatic memory gets stirred up, the limbic system processes it as the present, not past. This is why traumatic memories are so strong because they feel like the trauma, or part of the trauma is happening."
The one good thing about the limbic system operating as if the trauma is happening is that it can help keep a person safe.
"The downside is fairly obvious. When the limbic system is operating out of context it can make life miserable. Having flashbacks, being on high alert, and avoiding situations or circumstances that are triggering are just a few symptoms of a trauma that hasn’t been integrated into the system. So a limbic system that has unprocessed or unintegrated trauma will likely be more sensitive to situations and events that appear familiar to what caused the original trauma."
According to Friesen trauma can come in many different forms.
"We need to remember not to judge what may or may not be traumatic based solely on the event. It’s much more nuanced and it’s important to remember that we don’t choose our reactions and how we’re affected by trauma. It is something that has happened to us. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have control or responsibilities after the event has passed. But we always need to handle ourselves gently and with great care as we work to understand how to recover from events and situations that seem to throw us off-kilter."