WHAT IS A TRAUMA RESPONSE & HOW DO I RESPOND?
A trauma response is any reaction that serves to protect us from what we perceive as a threat due to our past lived experiences. They often include emotions, body sensations, thoughts, and behaviors. They are instinctual, learned, and come from the part of our brains concerned with survival – the amygdala. Trauma responses and what can trigger them are as unique as the person.
WHAT COUNTS AS TRAUMA?
In general, trauma is anything that overwhelms a person’s nervous system due to a threat to their physical or emotional safety. This can be a singular event, or a chronic, repeated experience of being unsafe.
Type 1 Traumas are singular events that came unexpectedly, such as a horrible accident, a sudden loss, a rape, or a natural disaster.
Type 2 Trauma refers to a way someone has been treated repeatedly for some period of time, where they felt trapped or powerless to leave. This includes things like emotional or physical neglect, repeated invalidation/dismissal of feelings, cricitism, manipulation, fear tactics, sexual abuse, bullying, repeated deception, racial microaggressions, or religious control.
Collective, Historical, or Generational Trauma refers to damaging experiences that affect communities, cultural groups, or a family line. This includes things like racism, slavery, genocide, forced removal, or repeated mass shootings.
Secondary or Vicarious Trauma is when a person hears or witnesses traumatic stories and begins to also have nervous system overwhelm. This could include first responders, police, firefighters, mental health providers, social workers, parents, teachers, or medical professionals.
Keep in mind that many of the “trauma response” examples named below could also be caused by other kinds of mental health concerns. For the purposes of this post, we will focus on considering that the unhealthy reaction you are witnessing in yourself, your partner, friend, relative, or coworker could be connected to past pain. When we bring this lens to our relationships, we can respond more compassionately and sensitively to difficult patterns of communicating or behaving.
EXAMPLES OF TRAUMA RESPONSES
When someone is first triggered, the trauma response usually has a fight or flight quality to it – a desire to defend or flee. Something in the situation, environment, or conversation has triggered the alarm system in the brain, and the response can look all sorts of ways. Here’s some common examples:
Need for control
Negativity & criticism
Denial of facts
Dismissing the other person
Excess forgetfulness or being scattered
Irritability, easily angered
Deflecting, shifting focus away from oneself
Excessive talking about oneself
Not admitting faults or mistakes
Raising one’s voice
Jumping to self-blame “It’s all my fault”
Not expressing one’s preferences, being too agreeable
Insincerity or inauthenticity
If the threat persists and the person does not find their way back to safety, a second level trauma response usually comes next. This usually has a freeze or collapse quality to it – a desire to completely escape. The alarm system is now in overdrive and begins to shut down. Examples include:
In a fog and zoned out
Numbing out on gaming, TV, etc.
Heaviness or depressed moods
Excess drinking or drug use
Binge eating, purging, or restricting of food
Excess porn, sex, or masturbation
Not caring anymore
HOW SHOULD I RESPOND? WHAT DO THEY ACTUALLY NEED?
NON-JUDGMENT & A POSTURE OF KIND, GENTLE CURIOSITY
When people react with a trauma response, it was not a conscious decision. It came from a chain reaction that led to a learned way of coping that is more instinctive than anything else. The person’s nervous system has been coded to protect itself, and they probably didn’t intend for it to unfold how it did. Trauma survivors are used to feeling shamed and blamed. Respond without judgment and with sincere desire to understand to change the narrative.
Survivors of trauma have often learned to not expect others to be there when they need them. They have been let down so many times before, and been left to fend for themselves. Traumatic experiences are full of unpredictability. Will my needs be met? Will I feel safe? Follow through often & with consistency to change the narrative.
Survivors of trauma have often learned not to trust their emotions, or were told they shouldn’t feel what they feel. This can lead to shutting down, confusion, or self-doubt. Traumatic experiences are full of invalidation. Try to listen between the lines for the emotion. Then tell them, “I hear you. It’s completely understandable that you feel that way.” Validate often & with consistency to change the narrative.
ASKED WHAT THEY NEED
Survivors of trauma often will dismiss their needs for others. This is often a learned pattern – doing whatever you have to do to survive an overwhelming situation. As a result, they sometimes may struggle to know what they need, and even more so struggle to feel safe to express it. Traumatic experiences are full of unmet needs. Ask often & with consistency to change the narrative.
Survivors of trauma are used to chaos and unpredictability. To survive, they learned to live in a constant state of hypervigilance – ready to fight, flee, or freeze at any moment to stay safe. When you simply show up in a consistent, predictable way, you help rewire their brain that it can be safe to trust. Traumatic experiences are full of unpredictability. Be a consistent, predictable person to change the narrative.
Verbal abuse, criticism, and performance- based love and acceptance is traumatic when experienced repeatedly and over years. It leads to not seeing oneself as worthy, competent, or capable. It leads to struggling to know who I am & if I’m deserving of love. Traumatic experiences are full of words that destroy identity & self-worth. Affirm their strengths, worth, value, & courage often to change the narrative.
People who have experienced trauma are more used to their voice being dismissed or ignored. “No” was not met with respect; it was pushed, coerced, or belittled. Over time, we learn not to voice what boundaries we need to feel safe because…who’s listening anyways? Trauma experiences are full of poor boundaries. Respect and encourage good boundaries to change the narrative.
- Find compassion for the person. Imagine being in their life, their situation, their story.
- Don’t raise your voice. You can talk through something hard or sensitive without talking loud (and do it much more effectively).
- Stick to “I” statements – “I feel…” “I experience…” “I understood it this way…” and avoid “you” statements, especially when paired with you never or always, which make most people feel more attacked.
- Slow down the conversation. Summarize what they just said and see if you can identify the feelings being expressed, not just the content. Often, when we are just firing back & forth, we are missing the emotion held in what the other person is saying.
- “I’m hearing…”
- “It sounds like…”
- “Correct me if I’m misunderstanding…”
- Give them a moment to correct or clarify with you, before you respond with your thing. “Help me understand what’s going on for you” is a great one to use.
Dana, D. (2018) The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy