Yes, trauma can be your springboard to greater happiness
In one way or another we all carry trauma, and I’m no exception. My trauma has morphed over the years, the reaction changing as my body tried to accommodate it.
When I was eight it showed-up as anxiety, perfectionism and a desire to please other people. When I was 11, and as a way to cope with my low self-esteem and overwhelming feelings, it showed up as an eating disorder. By 19 it had become panic attacks and cognitively zoning out (dissociation). By 23 it was an overwhelming mix of all of these things. At 38, as I sit here now, my trauma primarily exists as a deep desire to help others heal, grow and break free.
Trauma comes in many shapes and sizes. For some, it shows up as prolonged anxiety and fear. For others, it presents as coping strategies like people-pleasing, compulsive busyness or overeating. For some it’s depression, for others it’s low self-worth or shame. For some, the outcome of living with all those stress hormones over time, leads to physical conditions like chronic fatigue or cancer.
Yes, trauma can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it can also lead to a whole heap of other, more common, outcomes too. Trauma is a reaction to an experience that makes us feel overwhelmed, threatened and out of control. Severe experiences like assaults or natural disasters can provoke this reaction in us, but so too can everyday experiences like slips and falls or conflicts in relationships.
Over the years, each traumatic reaction stacks up on top of the previous one. For me, the prolonged and severe bullying I experienced at high school sits on top of my childhood trauma. On top of my reaction to the bullying sits my reaction to a car accident I experienced at 18. On top of the car accident sits…well, you get the gist. Each reaction paves the way for the next, unless we intervene that is.
Trauma sits at the base of most human pain and dysfunction. It’s widespread and causing chaos in relationships, in families and at work. Collectively we need to reframe most mental health issues as a response to previous trauma. But individually, we also need to act. Each and every one of us needs to tool-up. No, I’m not talking oozies. We all need to tool-up on techniques that can intervene in, and discharge, traumatic reactions. Because although trauma is widespread and causing chaos, there are very simple solutions that can stop the spread.
Top of the list is noticing our feelings and allowing them to release. Trauma tamps everything down, we need to get things moving again. Notice how you’re feeling and then allow yourself to cry, allow yourself to shout and move, whatever you need. Don’t be afraid of your own, or other people’s big feelings. I promise you, they do more damage in than out. Next up, learn how it feels to be totally present, connected to your body and grounded.
Find ways to help you enter this state, because this is the state you need to return to after you’ve experienced any overreaction. This is also the state you need to be in if anyone you love experiences an overwhelming reaction. They need you to be a rock, to anchor them into the moment so their own reaction doesn’t run away with them. Your regulated body will help their body return to calm, and prevent the reaction from spiralling.
Lastly, I want to highlight how important it is to be our own cheerleader. Picture this. Someone you love, perhaps a child, partner of friend, has experienced a really difficult time. You can see signs of trauma – they’re anxious, not sleeping and exhibiting low self-worth. What do you say to them? I’m guessing, in between the listening and the cuddling, you’ll say something like: “you’re so brave, you’re doing so good, it’s OK not to be OK, I’ve got you, everything’s going to be OK.”
These messages are so important. They are going in, I promise you. They are helping your loved one frame the experience in a way that will lead to posttraumatic growth. You too need to speak to your lovely self in this way, if you want to experience positive growth after trauma. If you do, your trauma and hardship will become a source of increased strength, resilience and growth. Trauma is causing chaos, but it doesn’t have to. In fact, trauma and adversity can be your springboard to greater happiness and wellbeing, just as it has been for me.
Dr Sarah Woodhouse is a research psychologist and trauma expert. Her book, You’re Not Broken, published by Penguin Random House is out now.