Tag Archives: trauma

The rules of trauma

(CW: Details of triggering processes but not of traumatic experiences)

I’ve got the kind of brain that has always tried to figure out what the rules are. I seek patterns, I have a huge need to understand what’s going on, and to make sense of things. This week it struck me that this will have had implications for how I’ve dealt with traumatic events.

I’ve been going through some triggering (as one does) and while that’s horrible, it’s also the time when it’s most possible to expose the mechanics of the thing. So, here we go…

Triggering itself happens because something in the current situation brings the previous trauma up in such forceful and immediate ways that there are invasive thoughts, flashbacks, or the emotional impact of the past seeps into the present. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve needed to use the skills I developed to deal with a previous awful situation. No surprises that I haven’t been coping so well.

However, what’s struck me is the way in which my brain has created some kind of rule set to go with the previous distressing experience and how much my brain wants to apply those rules to what’s going on now. My need to understand things is such that I am, in a weird way, happier having a clear idea what the rules are. Terrible things that make sense are less awful than not knowing what’s going on.

I don’t have to be at the mercy of this. Yes, there are parallels, but no, things going on right now are in so many ways radically different from the situation they evoke. I do not have to let the past become a rule set for understanding what’s going on right now, nor are those older experiences a meaningful guide to what to expect.

Even more startling, is the realisation that sometimes there may be no rules. There may be no underlying order that I can uncover to make sense of things. There are probabilities, possibilities, theories, there are ways of using the past to map the possible future, and it is fine to think on those terms. The very idea of not knowing the rules and needing to figure them out comes out of experiences where I’ve been frightened, socially alienated and unable to cope – and that goes all the way back into my childhood. 

I’m not the sort of person to believe you always have to find a silver lining. Sometimes things are just shit and happen for no reason at all. At the same time, I’m in a position where I’ve been able to take some crappy experiences and use them to reconsider how I relate to myself and my history. I can unpick this relationship between hideous experiences and the idea that those form a pattern for what to expect, because that’s clearly not true. I can recognise my rule-seeking thoughts as a valid defence mechanism for dealing with threat, but I don’t have to go ahead and keep applying it.

Sometimes there are no rules. What one person does, is not a reliable tool for predicting what another person will do, no matter how distressed I feel or how similar situations feel. Parallels are not proof of anything. Just because I have learned to be afraid, does not mean that I need to keep feeling afraid.

Recognising complex triggering

Content warning for the kinds of things that create triggers in the first place. Nothing in great detail.

The kind of triggering that is best known is where something occurring in the present connects with a past trauma in the mind of a person and throws them into flashbacks. The classic example is of a loud noise – like a firework – throwing someone back into the traumatic experience of being in a war zone.

Complex triggering is by its very nature, far more complicated. It’s also a lot harder to spot. People suffering more straightforward triggering can often identify their triggers and know what they struggle with. Obvious examples would be scenes of rape, violence or torture in films. When the triggers and traumas are less about specific events and more about life experiences over longer periods of time, both the process of being triggered and the consequences are really different.

I had some of the simpler forms of PTSD in relation to some very specific events. At this point I’ve managed to get in control of them, and I don’t have that kind of flashback any more. It takes work, but it is entirely possible to get on top of things.

The complex triggers don’t take me back to specific events, more into emotional states that bring in, as invasive thoughts, anything that chimes with how I’m feeling. To a certain degree this is normal – our memories naturally bring up past events that connect with however we’re feeling. When you are sad, you are probably going to remember other times when you were sad. However, if what’s in your history is abandonment, years of being humiliated, physical violence, relentless experiences that crushed your confidence and took away your self esteem, and the like, then triggering opens you to a flood of that.

It can feel like drowning. An overwhelming torrent of awful feeling and memory, all turning up once in a vivid and present way, much like the other sort of flashback. Layer upon layer of it, bringing panic and despair in its wake. This may well have the effect of making whatever triggered you seem far, far worse than it is, or leaving you unable to think about whether this current round is as bad – which of course it could be. For people living in traumatic circumstances, the weight of triggering while you’re also dealing with something traumatic in the present is also an issue.

Normally when people talk about triggering, the assumption is that the current event is really not that big a deal and is only an issue because of the past event. If someone is screaming abuse at you, and that’s triggering flashbacks of all the other times you’ve been terrified and humiliated, there’s nothing you can do in the present to make that situation ok. The effect is to make it harder to deal with current trauma, harder to get out or to recognise that it isn’t your fault. Many domestic abuse victims have a hard time figuring out how to leave and I suspect this is a significant contributing factor.

As yet I haven’t run into any substantial information about how to handle more complex triggering. It seems to be an area of mental health that’s only just starting to be recognised and given proper attention. All I know for certain at this point is that if you aren’t currently in a dangerous situation and you can spot what’s happening, it gets easier to handle. It’s still desperately hard though.

(I’m ok today, before anyone worries. I wrote this post on a day when I was experiencing these things, but I’m not there right now.)

Anxiety past and future

When people talk about anxiety it’s often around the idea of being afraid of what’s going to happen. Don’t worry about the future, cheerful memes tell us. You can’t control the future, you have to live in the present. My growing suspicion is that anxiety isn’t about the future at all, but about the past, and perhaps to some degree, the present.

There are people who just worry about things randomly and for no good reason, but they seem to be rare. The people I know who struggle with anxiety do so for reasons. Experience has made them anxious. The fears are not irrational and it may also be the case that the source of anxiety is ongoing and pressing. Poverty is a simple example of this. Living in poverty creates a great deal of stress and causes problems that are not easily solved. Having no money will create the fear of becoming homeless, and the life expectancy of people who are without homes is shockingly low, so there’s a lot to be reasonably afraid of there.

When people experience trauma, it changes them. It’s fair to assume that a lot of people out there are dealing with trauma legacies, most usually from sexual assault and domestic abuse. No matter what the exact shape of the trauma is, it leaves you feeling fundamentally unsafe. A lot of PTSD recovery work depends on asserting that what happened was a one off and that you don’t therefore have to be afraid of everything. This might work for a person whose trauma centres on a specific event. However, when there have been multiple traumatic experiences over time, what’s happened is that the person has been persuaded that the world is not a safe place.

Anxiety is the grip of the past. It’s the ongoing impact of things that already happened. It isn’t about an imagined future or about wonky thinking, its about being unable, bodily, to let go. You can’t forget, you can’t unknow and so the fear lives inside you.

How rational is it to try and retrain a brain so that it thinks the world is, broadly speaking, a safe place? For a lot of people, this just isn’t true. If you have reason to think you might be beaten up for your sexual identity or shot because of your skin colour, you know you aren’t safe. If you have to get up tomorrow and go to a job where the stress makes you bodily ill, you aren’t safe. If you can’t afford to buy sufficient food, you aren’t safe.

All too often what we do is centre the problem in the person who is suffering. What we need to do is make improvements so that people are actually safer, rather than having interventions that depend on persuading people that they are ok, when really, they are not and do not actually have much control over things. The person who can genuinely overcome anxieties by undertaking to worry less did not have massive problems to begin with.

Trauma on repeat

Traumatic experiences change a person. How much I can bear is personal – as it is for everyone. I’m not a terribly resilient person. One of the consequences of having trauma history is that if new people come along and dig their fingers into existing bruises, I will react more dramatically than a not-bruised person would. Of course that makes it easy for anyone who was already amused by giving me a hard time to take issue with how easily I over-react, how melodramatic I am, how much of a fuss I make, etc etc. This has happened, although not recently.

Most people of course are well meaning and don’t go round deliberately triggering other people by deliberately poking their bruises. It will inevitably be confusing then when someone like me reacts in a way that doesn’t make obvious sense. From the outside, a triggered person can look insane and their responses can seem wildly disproportionate. People who have already been harmed are more likely to jump at the suggestion of a threat and to respond with extreme distress to things that other people may consider minor. 

Faced with this, it can be all too easy to assume you’re seeing a drama llama seeking attention and determined to be centre stage. I expect that if someone has already told you that I’m someone who likes to suck up all of the availble time and energy, and then you see what happens to me when I’m triggered and you don’t know I’m triggered… it’s not hard for me to imagine how that would play out.

You can’t see by looking whether a person has wounds or bruises under their clothes. Touch someone who is injured, and they may respond in unexpected ways. It’s easier to think about this kind of literal, physical wounding. Emotional wounding works in much the same way. It can be disturbing to have someone howl over something you thought was a non-issue, but perhaps framing it as having accidentally pressed against a wound makes it easier to think about.

There’s a lot of trauma out there. There are a lot of people carrying wounds from childhood abuse and from domestic abuse. There are a lot of neurodivergent people traumatised by how they’ve been treated. For pretty much every system that we have in place, there are people who have been traumatised by mistakes made in that system. Racism, sexism, ableism and other kinds of bigotry leave countless bruises on so many people. In amongst all of that there are also people who get a kick out of hurting people. It’s not the case that all abused people become abusers, but some do. None of this is straight forward.

When you’ve already been traumatised, you may have very little resilience for some things in ways that make no sense to anyone else. If you’re going through this, I encourage you to cut yourself some slack. Being prodded where you are already bruised is hard to take and feeling distress is valid regardless of what sense it makes to anyone else. 

If you are surprised by someone else’s distress response, consider there may be a bruise you can’t see. You aren’t responsible for the effects of a bruise you didn’t know was there, but how your relationship with that person goes – or if it continues at all – may depend on whether you’re prepared to find out.

The language of mental illness

I notice that I feel more comfortable writing ‘mental health problems’ than ‘mental illness’ because the second option seems so much more loaded. The words we use to talk about mental illness are problematic, too. Anxiety and depression are words that really don’t convey the life destroying nature of being overwhelmed by those things.

Years ago, a doctor gave me a questionnaire that talked about being anxious and fearful. I wasn’t those things – I was overwhelmed by terror on a daily basis and unable to function as a consequence and I could not express the severity of my situation in the terms the survey offered. I was then given a CBT handbook to help me manage those small fears that will go away if only you push back against them. Only I was terrified, all the time, thanks to the genuinely threatening things that were going on in my life.

Depression, as a term does not convey the state of being so weighted down that you no longer know how to move. It does not express the experience of being so numb that you no longer seem like a proper person on the inside. Depression does not convey the utter despair and hopelessness that sometimes kills people. Talking about the fatigue that comes with depression does not express what it’s like to be so overwhelmed that even the idea of trying to do something is unbearably exhausting. 

‘Triggering’ is a word that has been sorely abused by people deliberately minimising how trauma impacts on people. Triggering as a word is not adequate to express the horror and loss of control of finding that your mind has been thrown back into reliving traumatic experiences from your history. The word ‘trauma’ alone does not do enough to convey to untraumatised people what that kind of experience this means. And I don’t want to expand on that because not triggering the traumatised folk is a consideration alongside wanting to educate those who don’t really get it.

‘Personality disorder’ is an awful term that has stigma hard wired into it. It’s also a really problematic area of diagnosis – it’s just a label, it doesn’t represent anything that can be measured. How do you tell between these ‘disorders’ and perfectly reasonable trauma responses? How do you tell between trauma in undiagnosed neurodivergent adults, and ‘personality disorders’? This is an area where the problematic language represents a lot of problematic thinking. If this isn’t familiar territory, have a look at the ‘symptoms’ for schizophrenia https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/schizophrenia/symptoms/ and consider how many of those might be caused by trauma and by real threats that are assumed not to exist. What happens to an abused teen whose parents frame their behaviour as delusional? 

Often, the official language to describe conditions comes from an unaffected observer, not the people having the experience. This isn’t a neutral process, and the stigma against mental illness and neurodivergence is massive and longstanding. And please, if we’re going to label murderers as being mentally ill, could we at least have a specific label for that illness rather than making it seem like mentally ill people are dangerous to those around them. We’re not. Most of us are far more likely to harm ourselves than anyone else.

Different kinds of trauma

Most research into trauma is based on male experiences – especially the experiences of male soldiers. It focuses on the idea that you have experienced a single, or a small number of traumatic things and that healing comes from contextualising it and de-normalising it. The expectation of flashbacks to specific events as a PTSD response comes with this sort of trauma.

Of course not all trauma takes this shape. If you grew up neglected, or in an emotionally abusive family, there may not be any big events you can point at. Racial abuse can often take the form of relentless microaggressions – any one alone doesn’t look like much, but added together they become traumatic. Gaslighting depends on attrition, not big events. Economic abuse tends to be a long term project. Workplace bullying can be insidious and long term. People emerge from these situations traumatised and also not fitting the traditional model we have for dealing with event based trauma.

Then there’s the intersections – to be traumatised by living as a neurodiverse person while also having to deal with racism and economic abuse. To suffer medical trauma because of your sexual identity and also having to deal with workplace bullying and one instance of being beaten up… People can have multiple trauma sources and those interact with each other and impact on how, and if you might be going to heal.

I’ve experienced event-based trauma and the kinds of invasive thoughts and flashbacks that go with it. I’ve also experienced the kind of trauma that is built of smaller things over longer timeframes. Being triggered around that is qualitatively really different and much harder to spot. If you’re back in the trenches with the shellfire, then afterwards you have a pretty good idea what just happened. If you’re back in the hideous miasma of an awful childhood, or a toxic workplace or an abusive relationship, that mist can settle over you without it being obvious what’s happened.

With that kind of triggering, you can end up thinking, feeling and reacting as though you were back in hell. It can make the current situation look like the previous one. All the coping mechanisms come out – but they won’t be relevant or helpful if you aren’t in the same situation. They may even harm you. Everything is incredibly confusing and disorientating and you may feel as though you have gone entirely mad.

Getting help for complex trauma is much more complicated. Finding an expert who understands the layers of things you may be dealing with isn’t easy. Even recognising that you’ve got complex trauma impacting on you can be hard because when it isn’t event based, it plays out so much more subtly.

When traumas collide

This winter, Tom and I have done a lot of very deliberate work on changing our relationship. We both came to this marriage with a lot of history and with triggers – some of which we knew about, and some we didn’t. 

Usually when people talk about triggering, it goes like this: There is a person with a trauma history who encounters something that evokes that trauma. They are then thrown back into that history, like a soldier thrown back into the trenches by the sound of an explosion. Once you’re back in the trenches, everything you experience seems to be part of that scenario, and the original terror takes over.

When the trauma involves relationships, and when both of you have triggers, it’s entirely possible for both parties to set each other off. One person’s trauma response can become the other person’s trigger. Historical coping mechanisms can also be a big issue in all of this. If you have one person with a freeze response to panic, and one person whose emotional abuse history includes being totally ignored as punishment, that can be a messy combination.

It’s taken us a long time to get to the point of being able to talk about what happens when historical experiences collide like this. When it happens, we’re effectively functioning in two totally separate realities, not making sense to each other, unable to help each other and often adding to each other’s distress. It’s been messy at times. It’s taken work to get to the point of being able to pick it open and make changes.

One thing we’ve found that helps is to flag up problems as fast as possible. Tom tends to freeze around panic, and that intersects with what his ADHD brain does when he’s not coping. However, if he can tell me that he’s having processing issues, I don’t then take it personally, and we’re better able to work things through. 

I tend to make things worse because, thanks to my history, I act from the expectation that basic needs won’t be met and that in asking for small things I will be asking for too much. This creates the impression that the help I need would be impossibly difficult to achieve – an easy thing to persuade someone of if they’re used to being put under pressure to deliver impossible things. This means I don’t get the help, reinforcing my feeling that I don’t deserve to have my basic needs met and thus making me less able to ask for help. It’s really easy to get stuck in vicious circles like this.

I’ve learned to push back against my panic to ask clearly for what I need. Often it’s things like needing to be talked to so that I’m not simply trapped inside my own head with my escalating panic. You can see how well that works with Tom’s tendency to freeze when panicking…

Mental health problems aren’t solitary, personal issues. We didn’t get into this on our own. Much of where we are both struggling has everything to do with what happens around other people and in the context of relationships. Healing as a single-person project has never really worked. However, working together to support each other, deal with difficulties and find strategies for coping, is proving really effective.

Contemplating Brains

For various reasons, I’ve spent a lot of time in recent months looking for information about both neurodivergence and personality disorders. I minored in psychology back in the day and have remained interested in brain stuff ever since.

There are a lot of conditions that are defined by symptoms. When it comes to brain stuff and personality stuff this means as an adult, self reporting to someone who will then make a subjective assessment of how you’ve presented yourself. It’s not like looking at a broken bone, or how much insulin you produce. Given the way in which neurodivergent people tend to be traumatised, and how so-called personality disorders look a lot like pathologizing trauma responses, there’s a lot here that worries me.

I note with concern that diagnosis often has everything to do with how much of a nuisance you are to other people. Kids who act out at school are more likely to get checked out. Quiet but miserable kids may go unnoticed. I know historically that working class kids were less likely to be identified as dyslexic and more likely to be labelled as ‘thick’ and ignored. Girls who are shy and socially awkward but polite are more acceptable than boys having similar problems. Girls are socialised hard to be nice, in a way boys aren’t, all of which no doubt has a big impact on who gets diagnosed with autism. Boys underperforming with ADHD often get taken a lot more seriously than their female counterparts who get labelled as chatterboxes or as ditzy daydreamers. There’s a lot of sexism and classism tangled up in diagnosis, and more so in the past.

If you are a problem to your workplace, you might get an adult diagnosis. Otherwise it seems to be prohibitively difficult for a lot of people. There seems to be a general feeling that people who are high functioning and have viable workarounds don’t really need help. Be that with mental health or neurodivergence. These issues aren’t approached based on your suffering, it’s far more about the inconvenience you might cause to those around you. I think to some degree this is informed by lack of resources. There’s certainly not much support available for many people who are struggling.

We don’t actually get taught much about how our minds work. It would be useful if more people better understood what might be going on with other people’s heads, and their own. Education is always a good choice for reducing stigma and being more inclusive. Children who stand out as different may get help learning how to fit in, but why aren’t we teaching everyone how to better accommodate difference in the first place?

There’s so much more to quality of life than whether we can fit in at school and function in a workplace. I think there’s a lot of distortion created by how those aspects of life are prioritised. I wonder what different kinds of approaches to brains and health might be possible if we were willing to be a bit more thoughtful about it all.

Trauma Recovery

Last year, the cat in our household had two very unpleasant experiences with loose dogs. One of those has left my son with a scar, the second resulted in the cat hiding in a tree for four hours. My Anderson only goes out on a lead, so it was evident after the first incident that he’d become really fearful of all dogs. The tree incident was an overreaction to a situation that had too much in common with the first event.

Being a lively young cat, he really does need to go out for some exercise when he can. So, we started doing things to try and reduce the stress of dealing with dogs. Tom would pick him up when there was any dog around and I’d put myself between him and the dog. We talked to him, trying to sound reassuring. It wasn’t long before he was treating dogs on leads as much less of a threat and at this point he doesn’t simply panic when he sees a loose dog. He’s still very cautious, but he’s learned that the traumatic incident wasn’t normal and he’s recovering.

When it comes to humans, it’s often the case that recovery is tied up with getting to feel that the trauma is not the new normal. That of course has implications for anyone trapped in a traumatic situation. You can’t heal until you’re out of it. For a while, all dogs looked like a threat to Mr Anderson, and being a small cat, there wasn’t much he could do to change that. What’s helped him recover is that we’ve done things he could make sense of that have helped him feel safer and from there he’s been able to gather evidence that not all dogs are going to try and attack him.

In humans, we tend to treat recovery from trauma as the job of the individual. A therapist might hold safe space for you to think about things, but the odds are you’ll have to deal with the unsafe situations and try to overcome what happens to you. That’s really hard. It’s much easier to feel safe when you have people around you who are actively helping you to feel safer.

Mr Anderson has gone from reacting like he was afraid all dogs were going to try and kill him, to reacting as though he thinks some dogs might be friendly. He didn’t do that on his own.

When you can’t reboot

Healing – whether we’re talking about the body or the mind – is often framed as getting back to how things were before. This assumes that there was a before, and that you can return to it. There can be a lot of ableism tied up in the idea of getting people back to how they were. Where experience has been impactful, it’s often a lot more useful to embrace the change and focus on how to move forward to best effect.

A return to normal as a proposed goal can distract you from coming to terms with things as they now are. Even if your body can be put back pretty much as it was, a dramatic experience of injury or illness will change you. I think it’s really unhealthy not to give people room to be changed by that. How you feel and what you want to do with your life may be very different after the event, and it may have you questioning you previous ‘normal’ choices and priorities.

You can’t un-know trauma. You can’t re-wind and re-set to become the person who did not have that experience. Traumatic experiences change your perspective. You become more aware of the dangers, of the potential for loss. You can’t have that innocence back. You will need to form a new relationship with the world that includes what the trauma showed you, but holds it in a way that allows you to function.

There may be nowhere to go back to. If the damage – bodily or psychological – happened early, you will have no memories of what other people think of as normal. If you’ve never felt safe you don’t have the knowledge to draw on to overcome your difficulties. A lot of the available support material depends on the assumption that you can reconnect with your pre-trauma self and use that as at least a point of reference for a reboot. Not everyone has a pre-trauma self.

This means that for some of us, healing cannot be a reboot, because there’s nothing to reboot from. Healing means building from scratch things that other people take for granted. Trust. Self esteem. Confidence in the world, in people, in your right not to be hurt… these are hard things to develop later in life if you’ve grown up in an unsafe or inadequate environment. If you’ve never felt good enough or worthy of love, it’s a hard thing to grow that from scratch. Running into self help material around this can feel a lot like having it suggested that you’d be fine if you just grew a tail. And it doesn’t matter how obvious it is to anyone else that growing a tail should be easy and simple, if you’ve never had a tail, it’s intimidating and may well seem impossible.