Articles January 1, 2001

How Do You Know If You Have Experienced Trauma?

Pawan Bareja

Trauma occurs as a reaction to an event that threatens our life or our sense of safety, or our well-being, including having our self-confidence and self-worth threatened. It is an extraordinary (extra-ordinary, beyond normal) mental and nervous system response involving survival energies within our bodies that shuts down our capacity to think and to make conscious decisions regarding our safety. At the moment of threat, intense feelings of fear, helplessness, loss of control, and the threat of annihilation are evoked, propelling us to rely on our survival instincts, which usually means a fight or flight response. Or, as modern day psychologists discovered, this intense and frightening unease may evoke a "freeze" response in which we feel unable to respond at all, or we simply submit meekly to the perceived fear, or in some circumstances, can even identify with and become identified with and loyal to the perpetrator that is causing that fear.

Trauma is a physiological process with psychological and emotional repercussions. Peter Levine, a body-oriented trauma specialist and creator of the Somatic Experiencing system of trauma healing, says that the trauma resides in the nervous system, not just in the event. Peter has developed the method of Somatic Experiencing, where working with the body is essential if you want to move through the emotional content. If the survival energies mobilized within the nervous system are unable to complete the act of fight, flight, or freeze, then they appear as traumatic symptoms in the body. Trauma threatens the integrity of the animal within us. So settling the animal within ourselves is essential for the psychological and emotional healing to occur.

One of the ways to tell whether you've experienced trauma is by paying attention to your natural response, where you will find yourself making persistent efforts to avoid situations that evoke the difficult emotions or memories of the event or stimulate the uncomfortable body sensations. Dr. Robert Scaer, MD, author of The Body Bears the Burden, a seminal trauma healing book, noticed that several of his clients in his private practice would report intense symptoms such as dizziness, lack of balance, or nausea after being involved in a car accident at low speeds such as 5 miles per hour. The insurance companies could not believe their clients that these symptoms arose from the low-speed car accident and would dispute their claims. But after seeing several such cases, Scaer found common ground among the symptoms and childhood trauma where the memories were not available and his patients were too young to remember the specific incident of abuse, but their body was telling a story of their abuse with the extreme physical symptoms.

Not all difficult experiences result in trauma. So when you have a difficult experience or some symptoms come up for you, which you are unable to fully explain, then ask yourself these questions to figure out whether you have experienced some past trauma or symptoms from a past trauma have come up for you:

  • Do you have access to positive moods and emotions? Someone who has been through a traumatic event may find that they don't have much access to some of the positive emotions they felt before the traumatic event. Their moods and thinking have been altered or worsened after the traumatic event.

  • Are you able to recall all the key features of the difficult event? A traumatized person may be unable to recall key features of the traumatic event. This inability is called dissociative amnesia, which is not due to head injury, alcohol, or drugs.

  • Do you have excessive self-judgments or feelings of lack of safety? After the traumatic event, they may develop negative beliefs and expectations about themselves or the world. Examples of these beliefs would be "I am bad" or "The world is completely dangerous."

  • Are you excessively self-critical? Another way to tell if someone has been traumatized is if they continuously blame themselves for causing the traumatic event, even if it is not their fault. Or they may blame the other person for the resulting consequences even if the blame is not well placed.

  • Are you persistently riddled with some of the trauma-related emotions such as fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame?

  • Have you lost interest or have lesser interest in activities that you previously enjoyed?

  • Do you feel alienated and estranged from others or experience loneliness and isolation and have no explanation or specific conditions that explain these feelings?

After the traumatic event, the person may have a lower threshold when facing stressful situations and become easily aroused or reactive. The arousal or reactivity will show up in behaviors such as:

  • Irritable or aggressive behavior

  • Self-destructive or reckless behavior

  • Hyper-vigilance is where a person is constantly looking for danger in their environment

  • Exaggerated startle response

  • Problems in concentration

  • Sleep disturbance

The End of Trauma

What seems to be most effective in ending the trauma cycle is practicing "mindfulness" of the trauma experience in your body and emotions so that healing can occur sustainably over time. In other words, an integrated approach to healing trauma through the nervous system that utilizes mindfulness and a body-based approach is often the most effective in healing trauma.

Practice Suggestion

Start with sitting comfortably on a chair. Place your feet squarely on the floor and allow your back to rest against the chair. Gently press your feet into the ground for 5 seconds and release. Do this at least three times and sense into your body after releasing if your breath is deeper or if your feet feel more in touch with the ground.

Find a sitting posture where your back is straight and supported by the chair. Now place a palm on your chest and another on your belly. With each breath, feel the rise and fall of your hands. Now bring an attitude of gentleness to your self-touch as if you are holding a good friend or your loved one. Sit with this gentleness towards yourself for a few breaths.

Notice after a few minutes whether your breath is deeper and if you feel more calm, centered, and grounded.

Pawan Bareja

Pawan Bareja

Residential Retreat Teacher

Pawan Bareja, PhD has practiced Vipassana meditation since 2001. She is a graduate of the Spirit Rock Teacher Training, a Buddhist Ritual Minister and a Community Dharma Leader at Spirit Rock. In her private practice as Trauma Resolution Practitioner, Pawan works with a diverse population of clients using mindfulness practices.