What is trauma?

It’s a term that you hear a lot these days, but you may not know what it actually means.

Trauma at the most basic level is an emotionally or physically distressing response to an event. As such, it’s caused by your brain’s interpretation of the event. The event that sparks trauma can vary from person to person – something that’s traumatic for one person may not even register for another.

Trauma is not the same as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and does not always lead to it. Some people experience trauma, process it, and do not develop PTSD. PTSD is just one reaction that some people have to trauma. In PTSD the brain gets stuck in repetitive loops, similar to any chronic thought-based problem. These repetitive thought patterns create emotional and physical symptoms, like intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, mood swings, anxiety and fear, guilt and self-blame, feelings of numbness and disconnection.

I recommend that if you have experienced trauma and especially if you have PTSD, you work with appropriate mental health professionals to process that original event or series of events that gave rise to the trauma. Coaching on its own is not the answer to severe or complex trauma.

But that being said, coaching tools can be enormously helpful when you are working through trauma, especially when you have done the work to process that original event.

There are two ways coaching tools can help: With your experience of your symptoms, and with your story about how the trauma figures in your life.

If you’ve been listening to the podcast for a bit you know that I teach that being willing to have your emotions and be present with them makes them much less distressing than trying to resist them and get away from them. The same is true of any trauma-related symptoms or emotions.

As with any other feeling or thought pattern, if you are experiencing the after-effects of trauma, you have to start with acceptance.

That means accepting your symptoms, rather than resisting them and wishing they didn’t exist.

Your symptoms are your current reality. You may be able to use thought work to help change the thoughts that are leading to your symptoms, as I’ll teach you on Thursday, but first, you have to accept that they are part of your current reality and be willing to experience them.

Since PTSD-related emotions can be very intense and overwhelming, it can be helpful to create a plan for what you’ll do when you have a symptom.

That plan can be a simple action or series of actions that will help ground you back in your body, and remind you that you’re safe when you’re triggered.

“Simple” is key since you’ll be drawing on this protocol when you’re having symptoms. It’s crucial that you are able to recall the plan while your body is under emotional stress.

Let’s say you experience flashbacks when you hear a particular song.

You’ve worked on accepting that you’ll have certain feelings when you hear that song.

Now it’s time to create a plan for the next time you hear that song. Your goal is to ground you in your body when your symptoms are triggered.

For example, you could decide to put your hand over your heart, take 3 deep breaths, and repeat “these are just musical notes and I am safe right now.”

You can create any kind of plan that seems helpful, as long as it’s easy enough to recall when you’re experiencing trauma and it grounds you in your body and gives your brain something else to think about.

Once you’re able to accept your trauma and have a plan in place for dealing with the symptoms, you can work on shifting the thoughts that are leading to your symptoms.

Your traumatic response is created by how your brain interprets an event in the past.

Since the past is over, nothing you can do now will change it. But you can change your thoughts about what happened, which will help you process your experience in a new way.

You likely have a story about what happened – why it was a problem, why it was dangerous, what someone else did wrong, what you did wrong.

As always, you can keep those thoughts if you want. It’s always up to you.

But it’s important to know that you don’t have to.

Just because something is labeled trauma or you have a diagnosis doesn’t mean that the thoughts are fundamentally different from any other thoughts you may have worked on changing previously.

If your thoughts about trauma feel disempowering, you don’t have to keep them. You can rewrite your relationship to what happened to you such that it empowers you.

There’s even a term for this: post-traumatic growth.

Studies show that while some people experience negative symptoms after trauma, some people are actually able to use traumatic experiences to create meaning and emotional growth in their lives.

Some people create lives that are better after the trauma than before it.

How powerful is that?

When you change your thoughts to ones that are more empowering and don’t trigger the same trauma reaction for you, you get to decide how to think about your past and what you’re making it mean – about the world, about yourself, and about your life.

So how do you embrace post-traumatic growth?

You may need to do a few levels of thought work.

First, there are the thoughts you have about the actual event(s) in question. Do you like those thoughts? Do you want to keep them? You get to decide.

Second, there are the thoughts you have about trauma or a PTSD diagnosis or symptoms themselves – what you make those mean, how you relate to them, how you think about them.

Third, there are the thoughts you have about yourself – what you make the trauma or PTSD symptoms mean about you as a person and the potential of your life.

You can choose how you want to think about the trauma.

You can choose to look for ways you are powerful rather than powerless.

You can choose to look for ways this experience can make your life better, rather than worse.

Trauma doesn’t have to be an event that sets off a negative traumatic response.

It can also set off a powerful and life-affirming response.

And the best part is that you can choose.

If you don’t want to choose post-traumatic growth or you’re not ready or the thought doesn’t settle well with you, that doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. You don’t have to change your thoughts if you don’t want to.

But know that it’s never too late to choose post-traumatic growth if you want.

You don’t have to be happy about your trauma, but you get to decide what to make it mean.

All those things in our lives that we don’t want to experience – the suffering, the trauma, the negative emotions – what if they offered fuel for evolution and growth?

What if they offered the opportunity to choose – and what if that option to choose was everything?

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