Stressful events can leave deep marks on your whole system, for a lifetime. Anne is doing a doctoral studies on the effects of trauma. In this blog she shares her insights, such as the importance of understanding what trauma does to people.
About two weeks ago, a young woman suddenly collapsed and died right before my eyes. Or nearly died, actually, because with two other bystanders, we immediately provided CPR and called an ambulance. The short story: she made it, yet the whole event still was incredibly shocking for everyone involved.
Seeing the life fade out of a person is an image you don’t forget easily
Especially if that person is still very young, with a whole life before her. And thus it didn’t surprise me that I was on high alert the days after. I kept returning to that moment, and was sometimes struck by flashbacks, sounds and emotions. After 29 years of life experience, four years of trauma research and no lack of stressful events in my own life, I am no stranger to the subject.
Many people have no idea what the impact of trauma can be
Trauma can affect your whole system, for the rest of your life. Yet it still surprises me every time someone seems completely clueless about their complaints, which to me can clearly be explained by former life events. Such was the case, for example, with the bystanders who gave first aid to the young woman. He experienced the same effects afterwards, yet could not understand where they were coming from.
His own reactions made him even more nervous – was he going crazy?! – until I explained they were a natural response and would pass eventually
Another field case: when I worked as a psychologist at the Dutch 113 suicide prevention hotline, I regularly talked with (former) military personnel who had had all sorts of horrific experiences. They were clearly suffering from PTSS, yet had no clue about it themselves. It never even occurred to them that trauma could be the reason for what they were (or were not) doing and for how they were (not) feeling. The fact that they were now struggling with suicidal thoughts, seemed to me a sign of how powerless they felt in handling a post-traumatic reaction that they simply couldn’t understand.
Explaining that there was a reason behind their behaviour, emotions and flashbacks gave them a whole new perspective
A perspective that enabled them to think about other things than suicide, such as treatment, and even recovery. It opened a way out of their suffering, by focusing first on what exactly was happening to them. And what they had went through.
Your biography has an effect on your biology, I quickly learned
This insight is now the topic of my doctoral studies. Stressful events in your past have an impact on your psycho-physiological processes in the present, such as heartbeat and muscle tension. Even if the cause of the stress or trauma lies way back in your earliest childhood. Or more exactly: especially then. Research shows that going through stressful events at a (very) young age, can have a serious impact on you physical state and overall well-being. It affects the whole system, from neurotransmitters and the immune system to hormones and brain development.
This happens regardless of age by the way: trauma always leaves a mark
Sometimes these marks are very obvious to you. But they can also be so subtle or subconscious that you never fully grasp them. Let alone understand them. Until someone points it out for you. That is exactly why it is so important to always ask about trauma when someone reports vague or undefined psychological issues. It’s not exceptional that psychosis, for instance, follows after a range of stressful – or downright traumatic – experiences. Treating the psychosis as a symptom while leaving the deeper cause untreated provides only a short-term solution. This guarantees that the symptoms will return.
The pain or stress that is stored in your body will always find a way out
This way out can present itself as psychosis, an eating disorder or substance abuse, but also as a range of (unexplainable) physical issues, such as bowel or skin problems, or a weak immune system. Ignoring the deeper meaning and cause behind these issues means that treatment is only focused on the visible signs on the surface, yet almost never to the desired long-term result.
Especially when you are a care worker, always be aware of the possibility of trauma. Because understanding how the past still reveals itself in the present, is the first step towards recovering from trauma.
Anne Marsman is psychologist.