When I was an undergraduate student, I spent a month in Nepal working on a collaborative photography project with a group of women living in a safe house run by a local NGO. These were women who had suffered serious and extreme violence, ranging in experiences from sex trafficking to domestic violence to rejection by family members. The project was a simple one. I had been fortunate enough to have several cameras donated to the project, and so I asked the women I worked with to photograph several different topics. Photograph what makes you feel strong. Photograph your favorite thing. Photograph your home. These simple directives resulted in striking, beautiful images. I concluded that project feeling immensely grateful and humbled. I also concluded that project feeling the limitations of my own knowledge of trauma and resilience. I felt poorly equipped to understand and support the experiences that were shared with me on that trip. Part of this was because of the cultural difference and learning that needed to happen on my end. But I also felt acutely that I lacked an understanding of trauma. This experience was one of the larger stepping stones on my path to becoming an art therapist, and to committing myself to studying and treating trauma.
What exactly is trauma? Why do we all respond so differently to traumatic experiences? What keeps trauma “stuck” for some people… and inspires strength and resilience in others? How do we overcome it? These were questions I wanted answers to; I began to study with fervor.
If you are a person who has experienced trauma, or if you are a person who has a loved one who has experienced trauma, these are likely questions that have returned to your mind again and again as you have sought to find a way for yourself or your loved one. The next few blogs I write are going to be focused on sharing some of the information I have gathered over the years about trauma. I will start with breaking down what trauma is, and how it affects us. Then I’ll share some of what I’ve learned about how to manage the complex responses we develop to cope with trauma, as well as how to support a loved one. I’ll write about trauma in children, and trauma in older adolescents and young adults. My hope is that these blogs will help shine a light in experiences that can feel dark and overwhelming. I welcome your questions and feedback- send thoughts to me at email@example.com.
I also recognize the possibility that reading these blogs may be triggering for you if you have your own trauma story. Please be gentle with yourself, and take the time and space you need to process anything that comes up for you.
Trauma can be any number of experiences. What makes an experience traumatic is how the individual perceives the event and processes the event in their body. It is different for everyone. Trauma centers around the ways in which physical safety is threatened, and, often with very complex responses, the ways emotional safety is threatened. Traumatic experiences often meet several criteria, including:
Overwhelming our ability to cope
Activating our survival response (this is a series of biological reactions our bodies have when feeling threatened. More on this later)
Leaving us feeling helpless or vulnerable
Creating feelings of fear, rage, shame, betrayal, or submission
(Arc Reflections 2017)
Very often when we think of trauma we imagine experiences such as car accidents, major illness or injury, significant loss, or sexual or physical abuse. These things all constitute traumatic experiences for many people. However, this list leaves out several other important contributors to trauma. These include emotional or psychological abuse, neglect, early childhood experiences (pre-verbal), inappropriate parenting that is pervasive throughout childhood, parent drug or alcohol addiction, or moving from caregiver to caregiver as is often the experience of so many children who have been in foster care.
Any of the experiences listed above can create experiences that threaten our sense of physical and emotional safety in the world. The latter part of this list points to experiences that play a critical role in shaping our internal models for how we see ourselves, build relationships, and manage emotions. These are models that are developed over time, and, when we consistently experience the stressors associated with trauma, healthy development is disrupted.
I often frame trauma treatment as addressing two core issues that are often overlapping. One is the effect of traumatic memory. Trauma memories (held consciously or unconsciously) can cause major disruptions in our lives- nightmares, flashbacks, or adamant avoidance of any reminder of the traumatic experience, for example. The second major issue is the effect of trauma on development. This is particularly true for children who have experienced trauma. Often, this looks like extreme difficulty managing emotions, having a hard time trusting adults, struggling with attention and focus at school, overwhelming anxiety, etc.
I will devote future blogs to further exploring the difficulties of trauma- its symptoms and presentation- as well as strategies for helping yourself or a loved one through your experience. But for today, I want to end on a positive note. Trauma can feel dark, overwhelming, and impossible. If you’re reading this and you’ve experienced trauma, there’s a good chance you may notice your heart beating faster as you read, that memories you prefer to keep at a distance are returning to mind, or that you may be feeling a little foggy or fuzzy. There are good reasons for this. Pause. Breathe. Look around the space you are in and remind yourself of where you are now, and that this is not the past.
We often do not speak of positive outcomes of trauma. In fact, it can feel irreverent to even suggest such a thing. I remember when a young child I was working with looked at me and told me that they would not change any of their past trauma experiences because they would not have made the friends they have now. This is traumatic growth and resilience. These are the positive changes and insights that we would not have made otherwise. At their core is your individual strength, courage, and wisdom- the things that the trauma could not take from you. They deserve to be seen and to be celebrated. So if you are reading this, and you have experienced trauma, know that even your ability to read this speaks to your resilience and strength.
As I sat reviewing the images the women I worked with in Nepal had created, I realized I was sitting with image after image of their resilience. Their images were bright and colorful. The words accompanying the photographs were articulate and self-aware. I knew it at the time, and I continue to know it deeply now- they gave me a gift when they shared those images with me. Your strength is a gift in this world. I hope you know that today.
Thank you for taking the time to read. Stay tuned for more on trauma in the coming weeks.
Meg Hamilton, LPC is a therapist practicing in Durham, North Carolina. Meg is an art therapist and specializes in therapy for trauma as well as in supporting LGBTQ+ youth and families. Meg’s work is upheld and informed by a commitment to social justice. Learn more at www.birchcounselingdurham.com.