Responses to Trauma, an essay by Charlotte Kasl

RESPONSES TO TRAUMA

©Charlotte Sophia Kasl Ph.D. Oct 2002, revised 2004

I can be changed Maya Angelou

Note: There are many individual differences in response to trauma based on temperament, genetics, life situation, opportunities available, and childhood environment. It is crucial to relate to the humanity of each person individually and not make assumptions that any particular symptoms are present. The responses to trauma will present themselves in the course of treatment or therapy, often as recounted by the client. It can be extremely healing to help the client recognize these symptoms as natural responses to trauma or abuse, (often physiological fight, flight and freeze animal-type reactions) as opposed to the frequent sense that one is crazy, damaged, or is cursed with a tormenting mind.

From a broader, spiritual perspective, it relieves shame and guilt to realize that the true nature of a person resides as part of something bigger than the abuse or the thoughts–the aliveness that they are, the life energy that permeates all creation. Thus therapy is about dismantling or easing the intensity of survival responses so the person can access their true nature and feel more at ease.

1. Fear in relationships, lack of wise trust. Difficulty making healthy enduring connections with other people. Drawn toward people who validate the belief that one is inadequate, worthless, or undeserving of love and emotional support. Doesn’t feel deserving of people who show care, respect, and kindness. Difficulty maintaining one’s voice and values in close relationships. Difficulty setting limits, or knowing when to stay or leave a relationship.

2. Difficulty giving and receiving comfort and care from others. Feel shame about needs for comfort and tenderness–I shouldn’t need that. I’m being a baby. It’s dangerous to be vulnerable. I should be strong.” Some people either give or receive care, but it doesn’t flow into a continuous motion between two people.

3. Strong internal critics, censors, shame attacks, internalized from parents, abusers, strict religious training. It’s like having relentless negative chatter or static in the head which makes it difficult to hear or trust one’s authentic voice.

4. Affect dis-regulation: overwhelmed by strong feelings alternating with shutting down emotionally. Easily triggered by external events. As a result it’s hard to rely on emotional responses for guidance or to assess various situations and people. There’s always the question, is this response about the present or the past. “ Am I over-reacting? If I let loose of this anger, I could kill someone.”

5. Disconnected from sensations in the body which can provide important cues about people and situations that lead to action and resolving situations. For example a tight knot in the stomach might signal to a “healthy” person that he or she is upset about a situation and needs to address it. In other words the sensation leads to reflection, to assessing a situation, then to action and the resolution of the situation. However, if someone always has a nervous stomach and tight body, changing body sensations are easy to miss or ignore. As a result, situations don’t get resolved which leads to inner emotional congestion, buried hurt, resentments, or sadness, which in turn create distance and separateness from others.

6. Agitated body. Easily triggered and overwhelmed by intrusive memories and associated physiological sensations such as tightness of breath, sweaty hands, increased pulse rate, body tension. For example if someone in current time speaks in a slightly angry voice, it may be experienced with the same fear and physiological responses as if one were a child about to be harmed by an extremely angry adult. Thus the body is constantly agitated and secreting stress hormones such as cortisol associated with fight, flight and freeze reactions from perceived danger.

7. Low frustration tolerance. Difficulty persevering in the face of new challenges. If a project, task, conversation, or class doesn’t immediately go well, the heightened anxiety leads to quitting, walking away, or giving up. It can be difficult to enjoy learning or doing the daily work of making change because there is so much associated anxiety, or negative talk in the mind.

8. Attempts to self sooth/escape/protect via addictions, compulsions, defenses. Defenses can include numbing out, becoming defensive, blaming, self harm, collapsing into helplessness.

9. Lack of a broad understanding of the context of the abuse. Abuse memories reside internally as shame, and thoughts that “I’m damaged, it was my fault, I’m unlovable broad context. A broad perspective would include the context of family lineage, culture, drug abuse, classism, racism, homophobia, sexism, economics, and oppression.

10. Lack of nuanced understanding of life and situations–all or nothing thinking, use of platitudes, difficulty with ambiguity or seeing a situation from many sides. Lack of fascination, curiosity, awe, and wonder.

11. Initial trauma, or neglect is re-played in relationships with colleagues, friends, and partners wither through the people they tend to be around or through patterns of relating. For example, a person gravitates towards people who are emotionally withholding, blaming or abusive. In another example, an individual doesn’t voice reactions or irritation with a friend, builds up resentments and feels cut off and distant. Later, the buried grievances burst out and further alienate the friend. Another example: A person uses intimidation to keep people away, but underneath feels unseen, misunderstood and left out.

12. Chaotic/impulsive approach to life. Difficulty making a long term plan and thinking through all the necessary steps and sticking to them. An individual may do well in some areas and not others: this can vary with work, career, education, money, planning ahead, parenting, follow-through, or taking care of daily tasks.

13. Lack of a concept of self care including need for rest, taking care of ones health, friendships, exercise, healthy eating, exploring one’s talents and interests, creating balance in one’s life. For many people the idea of self care feels foreign or raises anxiety as if one is being disloyal to internalized beliefs of being undeserving.

14. Diminished capacity for pleasure, joy, and meaning in life apart from possessions, achievements, and status. This may be fragmented. For example, one may experience deep pleasure in nature, but cannot maintain these feelings in relationships or at work.

©Charlotte Sophia Kasl Ph.D. Oct 2002, revised 2004  http://charlottekasl.com/responses-to-trauma/

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