By Jeremy Godwin
What is trauma? How do you deal with situations and events that trigger traumatic emotions for you? How do you work through trauma in order to heal? That’s what I’m talking about this week on… Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of practical advice for better mental health.
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This podcast episode was originally released on 13 February, 2022.
Hello and welcome to Episode 118, I’m Jeremy Godwin and thanks so much for joining me!
This week I’m talking about trauma and I’ll be covering what trauma is, why understanding it and addressing it matters, and how to manage trauma for the sake of your mental health. So, let’s talk!
This is not a particularly easy topic to talk about, but then again if you’ve ever listened to an episode of my show then you’ll know that my view on this stuff is this: the more we talk about, the easier it gets. I probably don’t have to say this, given the name of the episode, but let me clarify that the content discussed today may be triggering for anyone dealing with unresolved trauma… so please be mindful as I head into today’s content.
Regular listeners will be aware that the reason I started this show back in 2019 was that I had dealt with my own mental health issues (being depression and anxiety throughout most of the 2010’s) and, when I was struggling, I found it difficult to locate resources that were (a) simple and (b) actually practical (instead of just being theoretical). More importantly, I wanted to find advice from people who actually understood what it’s like to wake up in the morning and feel the sheer weight of depression and anxiety; I think a lot of the people who give advice mean well, but some of them have no idea what it’s like to feel like complete and utter crap thanks to mental health challenges.
So here’s my point: I talk about some of my personal stories here because it’s a way of me sharing what has worked for me (and what hasn’t) rather than simply giving academic advice (which I incorporate as well). That doesn’t mean I have all the answers, because I don’t, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t still have issues from time to time… because I do.
So today I’m going to be acknowledging right upfront that I do not have all the answers when it comes to overcoming trauma, because I’m still working through some of my own (and I’ll share a bit about that later). So this episode will be including quite a lot of research and professional resources about trauma and then I’ll be sharing how I’ve been using all of that to manage my own challenges. I’ve said openly many, many times on this show that I am a guide, not a guru, and I believe that recovery is much more of a journey than a destination (which I discussed in Episode 27, about recovery), and when it comes to the long-lasting effects of traumatic experiences I think it’s fair to say that, for many of us, they can stick with us for a very long time.
Alright, so with all of that in mind let’s get into some definitions and let’s talk about…
What is trauma?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, trauma is an “emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may lead to long-term neurosis.” We tend to describe things as being ‘traumatic’ which are shocking and disturbing, especially when we’re talking about events. To quote Better Health Victoria:
“A traumatic experience is any event in life that causes a threat to our safety and potentially places our own life or the lives of others at risk. As a result, a person experiences high levels of emotional, psychological, and physical distress that temporarily disrupts their ability to function normally in day-to-day life.
Examples of potentially traumatic experiences include:
- natural disasters, such as a bushfire or flood
- being a victim of, or witness to, a crime, act of violence or armed robbery
- being involved in, or witnessing, a serious car or transport accident
- being physically assaulted
- [and many more]”
And you’ll find that article linked in the transcript (https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/trauma-reaction-and-recovery).
Traumatic stress following a disturbing event is a completely natural reaction, and it can take weeks or even months for the strong emotional reaction to begin to subside. To quote HelpGuide, “You may feel intense shock, confusion, and fear, or feel numb or overwhelmed by a host of conflicting emotions, sometimes all at once. And these emotions aren’t limited to the people who experienced the event. Round-the-clock news and social media coverage means that we’re all bombarded with horrific images of tragedy, suffering, and loss almost the instant they occur anywhere in the world. Repeated exposure can overwhelm your nervous system and create traumatic stress just as if you experienced the event firsthand.”
And you’ll find that article linked in the transcript (https://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/traumatic-stress.htm), which is available for free at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes.
We are all living through one of the most traumatic events in recent human history: the global pandemic. Our lives have been turned upside-down in countless ways and throughout it all we’re expected to just get on with our lives as though nothing is wrong… while at the same time being bombarded with terrible news and repeated signs of just how challenging things are (I don’t know what it’s like elsewhere, but here in my little corner of Australia we’re still dealing with a wide range of product shortages in the supermarket — especially meat — for a couple of months now, and it’s feeling like the early part of the pandemic when it felt a bit like the end of days). These kinds of events can trigger a near-constant fight, flight or freeze state where our instincts take over to keep us alert so we’re ready for survival mode if we need it; many people who have lived or currently live in abusive environments may find themselves constantly on-edge and walking on eggshells so as to minimise the risk of setting off the abusive person (and I know this response from firsthand experience with my mother, but more on that in a minute).
Let me quote again from that same HelpGuide article so we can explore this in a bit more detail:
“Traumatic stress can shatter your sense of security, leaving you feeling helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world… [you] may feel physically and emotionally drained, overcome with grief, or find it difficult to focus, sleep, or control your temper. These are all normal responses to abnormal events.”
And, again, that’s linked in the transcript.
Let’s pick up on that last sentence: “These are all normal responses to abnormal events.”
When it comes down to it, trauma is about the after-effects of dealing with stuff out of the ordinary. For example, I was in a car accident when I was 18 and although I was fine, I was in the front passenger seat and the car that slammed into us did so on that side, not too far in front of where I was sitting. At the time I thought I was fine, but clearly I wasn’t because I didn’t end up getting my licence until I was 32; I was OK to be a passenger in a car, but there was no way I could bring myself to drive so I just didn’t (it took working with an instructor who specialised in adult learner drivers who had dealt with vehicle-related trauma for me to finally overcome my fears of getting behind the wheel). This stuff doesn’t just heal itself magically, I’m afraid; all things take time, effort and perseverance.
So with that in mind, let’s move into the next part of today’s episode and let’s talk about…
Why understanding and addressing trauma matters
And it matters because you are not your trauma. You are not the things that have happened to you; you are what you do with the things that have happened to you. It’s the reason why I started this podcast and why I do the work I do; I want to turn my traumatic experiences into something positive. I didn’t want my history of depression and anxiety, or the fact that I was bullied relentlessly all through high school (and how much that had dented by self-confidence and self-worth well into adulthood), or the fact I had horrible parents… I didn’t want any of that to define me; I wanted to take control, and so that’s a choice I make every single day (some days better than others!).
Your trauma does not have to define you, unless you let it. You get to decide on your story; you get to choose what happens next and you get to choose to take back your own power.
By way of example, let me share a story about some traumatic stuff I’ve been dealing with lately and my own choices to take back my power.
November and December 2021 were fairly rough months for me; I’ve mentioned before that our cat, Igor, was quite sick (he’s much better now — thank you to everyone who sent me lovely and supportive messages!) but what I didn’t share with you was that he almost died and, at the same time al’ that was happening, I was going through major issues with my mother. To recap, or for anyone who’s new to my podcast (hello and welcome!), my mother was physically and emotionally abusive, to the point of terrorising me as a teenager, and for many years I tried to maintain a relationship with her, in spite of having an intense dislike of her, until eventually (at the start of 2013) she decided to cut everyone off. At first I was angry about it, but then over time I came to be grateful that she did what I couldn’t do. Over the next few years other family members started speaking to her and trying to help her out as she developed dementia but refused any kind of assistance, however I chose to keep her out of my life. Until 2020. Our 17-year-old cat, Pushka, died at the start of the pandemic and so between losing her and what was going on in the world, I developed more of a sense of forgiveness and so in mid-2020 when my aunt asked me to speak with Mum, I was actually receptive to the idea and I agreed.
For almost a year and a half I made regular effort to talk with her by phone or video chat at the nursing home where she now lives, and I struggled with it (especially with seeing her) so I tried to keep her at emotional arms-length… which worked for a while, but it didn’t last. By the second half of 2021 she was being nastier and more horrible than ever before, and I found myself becoming triggered — I had several times where I was fearful of getting in trouble with her (because that’s when she used to beat the crap out of me) and I had to discuss it with my therapist several times. Not long after, I stopped calling and went into total avoidance mode… between that and what was going on with Igor being sick, and everything that was going on in the world, I just couldn’t deal with it all and I went into complete emotional shutdown. It took a lot of work to force me out of my shell again, and one of the decisions I had to make was whether or not I was going to continue allowing my mother into my life.
After a lot of soul-searching, I decided that I was done; at least I had tried, but it just wasn’t a viable option to keep on banging my head against the wall when I knew in my heart that the 7.5 years I had been estranged from her had been absolutely essential in order to get my mental health and wellbeing back on track. So, I made the judgement call that I was no longer going to be speaking to my mother and I ended up telling my family of my decision a couple of days before Christmas so… yeah, that was a lot! Thankfully they were all very understanding and supportive, and so I’ve spent the past few weeks since then making my peace with my choice which has helped to level out a lot of the traumatised responses I was having to things.
Here’s my point in all of this: trauma is one of those things that we can carry with us and it can pop up when we least expect it… which is why we need to proactively work through it so that it doesn’t control you. I mean, I talk about mental health for a living and I’m certainly not immune to being bitten in the butt by my unaddressed trauma, so I can tell you from personal experience it is definitely not true that ‘time heals all wounds’ (like the old saying goes) because it just doesn’t; time helps, but it also requires effort and perseverance to proactively work through it all so that you can confront it, process it and release it (or at least move forward from it).
So how do you do all of that? How do you understand and address your trauma? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of today’s episode and let’s talk about…
How to manage trauma for the sake of your mental health
So, I usually wrap up by encouraging you to work with a professional (like a counsellor or therapist), however that’s what I’m starting with this time. Why? Because I am a big advocate for taking ownership of your own mental health and wellbeing, and having a daily self-care plan that you put in place, but of all the DIY approaches the subject of trauma is probably the least DIY-ish of the lot. Here’s how I look at it: if you’re renovating a house there are some things that you just have to get a licensed professional in to do so that you don’t wind up making things worse, and trauma is the same. If you’re not a qualified electrician then trying to rewire your own house will likely lead to accidentally burning the whole place down; the same goes for your mental health in terms of dealing with trauma… get professional support.
Let’s talk about what that support might look like. There are two types of professional you can see: a counsellor or a therapist, the main difference between the two being the level of study and licensing requirements they have to go through plus the types of techniques they can apply with you. While almost anyone can call themselves a counsellor, a qualified counsellor is someone who has completed an accredited course of study; while generalist counsellors may be able to help, there are actually specialist trauma counsellors who complete more detailed study in how to support clients to work through traumatic events and post-traumatic stress. Note that not all counsellors are comfortable with working in this space, even though it’s part of generalist training; I, for example, see a small numbers of clients one-on-one and I choose not to work in the trauma space because I find it too triggering, given my own history, so I refer anyone seeking trauma counselling to a specialist. I also mentioned therapists before; a therapist (or psychologist) has a higher level of post-graduate study than a counsellor and can apply more advanced techniques, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (also known as CBT) or Psychological First Aid (or PFA). The point is that a therapist will work with clients at a more advanced level than a counsellor would be qualified to do, so it depends on your situation and your needs (as well as your budget). If you’d like to learn more about the different kinds of support available for your mental health, I covered that topic back in Episode 33 (Let’s Talk About… Support) as well as the recovery episode, which was Episode 27.
So the main thing I want to clarify here is this: if you’re dealing with trauma, whether it’s happening now or it’s in your past, work with a professional rather than trying to fix it yourself or suppress it. Actually, that’s my next point…
Don’t try to suppress it — because that is, quite frankly, a recipe for disaster, emotionally and physically. When you suppress your emotions they don’t actually go anywhere; they’re still there, bubbling away just beneath the surface, and that can have far-reaching effects over time in terms of pretty much every aspect of your life: your self-confidence, your emotional wellbeing, your mood, your temper, your physical health, as well as your relationships at home and at work. I’ve had a few instances in the past, especially before my breakdown in 2011, where I was pushing my feelings down (and trying to manage them by self-medicating with food and alcohol) and, as a result, I wound up with some sort of physical symptoms that were stress-related; I had my entire face swell up with hives a couple of times because I hadn’t dealt with serious issues, and I had a massive amount of stomach issues because I was trying to pretend I was OK when I just wasn’t. Even if you’re not ready to speak to a counsellor or therapist yet, at the very least go and talk to your doctor and tell them everything that’s been going on so you can get some professional support to manage the physical and mental symptoms of whatever you’re dealing with. OK, so my next point is…
Face your feelings — and for this one I’m going to quote from an article about traumatic stress by the American Psychological Association (or APA) which you’ll find linked in the transcript (https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/stress). The quote is: “It’s normal to want to avoid thinking about a traumatic event. But not leaving the house, sleeping all the time, isolating yourself from loved ones, and using substances to escape reminders are not healthy ways to cope over time. Though avoidance is normal, too much of it can prolong your stress and keep you from healing. Gradually, try to ease back into a normal routine. Support from loved ones or a mental health professional can help a lot as you get back in the groove.” Alright, so my next point is…
Let it out to get it out — because when you keep your emotions trapped inside, they tend to fester and grow… and the only fester I’m a fan of is the one from the Addams Family (although I’m obviously a fan of recycled jokes, because I’ve definitely used that one before!). Talk with a close friend or family member, or at work talk with a trusted colleague or manager… or if you’re not ready to talk with someone, then grab a notebook or journal and write your feelings out. The more you express, the more you begin to let those emotions flow so that you can make sense of what has happened and how you feel about it. OK, next…
Know your triggers — because, as you’re working through everything there might be things that happen or thoughts that go through your mind which can cause strong negative emotions to resurface (and this is one of the main reasons why it’s important to work with a professional; post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can have long-term adverse effects on your wellbeing if left undiagnosed or untreated); be aware of what situations or relationships you might find challenging, and consider how you can minimise them or how you can deal with them if and when you feel triggered. I talked about triggers back in Episode 91, so that’s worth checking out in addition to getting into the root of whatever is going on (something I explored in Episode 7, about baggage). Alright, next…
Be kind to yourself — because trauma is… well, it’s traumatic! Since it will take time, effort and perseverance to heal, be kind to yourself along the way and, more importantly, be patient — Rome really wasn’t built in a day. Another way to be kind to yourself is with my next point, which is…
Make choices that are in your best interest — look, not all coping mechanisms are created equal. Some are healthy, others are unhealthy, and then there are the ones that walk a fine line between the two. For example, using alcohol as a coping mechanism: some people are completely fine with the odd glass, whereas others (like me) just don’t know how to do moderation. Rather than being like Kenny Loggins from the 80’s and taking a highway to the danger zone, make healthy choices and know the difference between the odd treat versus something you’re becoming reliant on. And when it comes to healthy choices, they can involve needing to decide to reduce your contact with certain people or situations, or remove them from your life completely; whatever you need to do is up to you. Be kind but also be assertive (something I covered in Episode 45, about assertiveness).
So, now I want to share some advice from the Australian Psychological Society on looking after yourself after a traumatic event or situation (and this is linked in the transcript https://psychology.org.au/for-the-public/psychology-topics/trauma/tips-on-managing-psychological-trauma); a few things to consider doing are:
- Recognise that you have been through a distressing experience and give yourself permission to experience some reaction to it. Don’t be angry with yourself for being upset
- Remind yourself that you are not abnormal and that you can and are coping
- Avoid overuse of alcohol or other drugs to cope
- Avoid making any major decisions or life changes
- Do not try to block out thoughts of what happened. Gradually confronting these thoughts will assist you in coming to terms with the traumatic experience.
- Share your experiences with others when opportunities arise. This may feel uncomfortable at times, but talking to people you trust rather than bottling up your feelings is helpful in dealing with trauma
- Try to maintain a normal routine. Keep busy and structure your day. Remember that regular exercise is important, but do allow yourself time to rest if you are tired.
- Do not unnecessarily avoid certain activities or places
- Let your friends and family know your needs. Help them to help you by letting them know when you are tired, need time out, or need a chance to talk or just be with someone
- Make time to practise relaxation. Use a formal technique such as progressive muscle relaxation, or just make time to absorb yourself in a relaxing activity such as gardening or listening to music. This will help your body and mind to readjust
- If the trauma stirs up memories or feelings from an unrelated past event, try not to let the memories all blur together. Keep the memories separate and deal with them separately
- Express your feelings as they arise. Discuss them with someone else or write them down in a diary. Expressing feelings often helps the healing process”
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to trauma and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: You are not defined by the traumatic things you’ve experienced; you are defined by how you work through them so you can make your peace with it and move forward. Your experiences will shape you, and your life, regardless of whether or not you confront them, process them and release them; instead of letting them control you, choose to take them and turn them into something that helps you to grow… because even from terrible circumstances, good things can blossom.
The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today?
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by an unknown author, and it is:
“The stars are constantly shining, but often we do not see them until the dark hours.”Unknown
Alright… that’s nearly it for this week. Next week I’ll be talking about opportunity. One of the underlying themes of this week’s episode is about the adverse effects of traumatic experiences, and I wanted to take that and turn it into a positive by exploring how it’s possible to triumph over adversity by seeking the opportunities that challenging situations provide us. Life will inevitably present you with difficult times and tough circumstances, yet even from the darkest of days there is still opportunity to be discovered (and created) so that you can grow and be the best version of yourself possible. So next time I’ll be talking about what opportunity is, why focusing on opportunity matters, and how to identify and create opportunities in your life.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday the 20th of February, 2022.
And catch my latest YouTube video on Wednesday over on my Better Mental Health channel; take a moment to subscribe to my channel using the link in the episode description or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au where you can also join my mailing list for my free weekly newsletter (and you’ll find my website also linked in the episode description on whatever podcast service you’re currently listening to me on).
And, as always, find me on Instagram at @ltamentalhealth where I post extra content throughout the week.
Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time!
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2022 Jeremy Godwin.
The information provided in this episode is for general awareness on the topic and does not constitute advice. You should consult a doctor and/or a mental health professional if you are struggling with your mental health and wellbeing. You’ll find additional information on the Resources page of this website.