learnings from counselling – it’s called trauma

2020 was a year of unprecedented change and challenge for many. (And also the highest ever recording of over-used terms like unprecedented.) So much was disrupted and there was an incredible amount of grief and loss experienced by people in various ways and to differing degrees. All of this at a time when many of our regular mechanisms for processing grief and loss were unavailable – which only served to cause more grief and loss. In fact, experts are predicting a grief bubble is still to burst as people come out from under the immediate threat and the need to ‘just keep going’ and start to feel the full extent of the losses they’ve experienced.

In May-June I experienced a specific (non-Covid related) life event that was devastating for me – personally, ‘professionally’ and relationally. Living alone and in various stages of lock down and restrictions meant it was a particularly bad time to face something so deeply impacting. I needed my huggers and my ‘bucket holders’ (you know, the ones who can handle the messiness while you word-vomit all the things that are clogging up your brain and heart). And also, the nature of the event meant there were sensitivities around who was able to know what I knew or who would be adversely impacted by what I would share – therefore caution was required.

So you just soldier on, right? It wasn’t good, it hurt, I felt disappointed (and all manner of other feelings) but there was work to show up for and things still to be done and people experiencing far more dramatic and challenging life circumstances than mine.

So you just soldier on.

By November the world around me was starting to open up again – shops and restaurants were functioning, the “ring of steel” around metropolitan Melbourne was opening up visitation to and with my family, work was readjusting and churches were starting to gather in person again. But I found myself feeling stuck.

I was struggling to get excited about social outings (yes, me!), feeling the affects of not having a home-church community, experiencing anxiety when I went out in public spaces, fearing or avoiding interactions and conversations, crying too much, sleeping poorly, reliving negative encounters in my head and rehearsing potential future ones. Stuck. It was an unfamiliar and decidedly unenjoyable place to be.

I thought about counselling. I’d never done that before. I thought about it out loud to a friend and the energy behind their response was strongly positive.

A friend once said “If anyone ever offers you a breath mint – take it!” You never know if they’re just generous sharers or are offering it to you for a reason! I think the same is true for friends or family who are enthusiastic about you going to counselling! šŸ™‚ So I booked myself in.

When I sat down for the first session my counselor asked me why I was there. I bumbled my way through a brief summary of the event/s that happened and the various and numerous ways I’d been impacted. I shared how I was embarrassed by the way I was (or wasn’t) coping with it now – some six months later. And the counselor interrupted me.

“It’s called trauma!”

What you have experienced (and are now experiencing the ongoing affects of) is trauma.

Broadly defined, trauma is the response to events that are distressing or disturbing. There’s not really objective criteria for determining which events will cause trauma response. In fact, two people can respond differently to a shared experience. Trauma might evidence itself through flashbacks or intrusive memories, somatic or physiological symptoms (such as those responses associated with the “fight, flight or freeze” mechanisms, brain fog, increased heartrate, feeling hot or cold, gastrointestinal problems, headaches etc), negative thoughts or feelings, general changes in arousal responses, insomnia or oversleeping, emotional dysregulation, substance abuse, anxiety, or depression.

There’s also the phenomenon of ‘vicarious trauma’ which is experienced by those in helping roles or professions. Where, over time, the continued exposure to others’ stories and experiences of trauma builds up to overwhelm a person’s ability to cope themselves – impacting their own physical and emotional wellbeing.

To varying degrees, we all face “distressing and disturbing” events regularly. If we are emotionally healthy and functioning within our own range of normal, we are able to adjust and adapt to circumstances around us with reasonable agility and resilience. Bigger events of loss, threat, conflict or uncertainty move us to the edges of our capacity to cope and the longer we hang out at those edges the more likely we are to start experiencing and exhibiting the above symptoms of trauma.

It turns out, that ‘soldiering on’ probably wasn’t my best strategy. In fact, pushing past emotions and feelings was probably doing more to exacerbate the trauma impact on my physical and emotional wellbeing. Prolonging its disruption to my life and perpetuating unhelpful coping strategies (or avoidances) rather than naming and owning my experiences so they could be more appropriately processed.

“Give yourself a break.” was the basic learning from session one. Acknowledge your trauma, give yourself permission to not be ok … then we can start to work on healing and recovery.