What Is Trauma & How Do We Heal From It?

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Most people associate trauma with physical violence or major tragedies, but there are plenty of other situations which can generate trauma depending on how the individual’s psyche registers an event. Trauma, by definition, refers to a deeply distressing or upsetting experience. We often use the term Big “T” when discussing the profound trauma that results in PTSD, and little “t” when talking about distressing events that cause distress to an individual but at a less intense capacity.

Trauma is subjective in nature; there is no universal measure or threshold for a traumatic event. The same event may traumatize one individual but not another due to a multitude of factors. The only criteria for trauma is that the experience was disturbing or shocking to you on a physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual level. Some examples of commonly perceived traumatic situations include, but are not limited to:

  • Death of a loved one

  • Abuse (sexual, physical, mental, or emotional)

  • Domestic violence

  • Divorce

  • Neglect

  • Natural disaster

  • Being in or witnessing a serious car accident

  • Abortion

  • War

  • Serious injury

  • Adoption

  • Terrorism

If you notice yourself trying to prevent encounters with a familiar pain, you are likely  avoiding an unhealed trauma. For example, maybe you avoid going to a certain intersection because it is where you saw a serious car accident. Unresolved trauma typically does not dissipate with time and can haunt us until we do the necessary work to heal that emotional pain.

During childhood, we develop a sense of identity, safety, self-esteem, and trust. Thus, childhood trauma can influence the way in which we develop attachments and form a sense of belonging in the world. Although trauma at any age is significant, it is of utmost importance to address that which occurred early on in life since these events have the capacity to alter our psychological development.

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Much of the trauma we experience as adults is connected to our childhood trauma. The people and places may change, but the pain is often rooted in the first time that we experienced that type of trauma. In other words, during a stressful moment, our mind often regresses to the first time that we experienced that particular pain as a defense mechanism to alert us of an unsafe situation. When an event triggers a trauma that is hidden deep in your psyche, it may lead you to panic or freeze, which in turn may cause you to turn to substances in effort to numb yourself. This explains why there is a strong correlation between trauma and addiction.

Not why the addiction, but why the pain?
— Gabor Maté

To clarify: just because there is a link between trauma and addiction does not mean that everyone who’s experienced a traumatic event will end up addicted to something. The implications of trauma differ from person to person depending on how the individual regrets it. For example, one brother may remember his father being an abusive alcoholic, while the other may remember having a loving, patient father who drank a little bit too much on the holidays. The difference in these brother’s internal experiences does not invalidate the first one’s trauma, but may explain why he turned to drugs and the latter did not.

Although we cannot change the past, we can change how we remember past events. A specific trauma, such as abandonment, may influence you on 50 occasions; but 49 of them were triggered by that initial traumatic event that lead you to fear abandonment in the first place. In order to get over the trauma of abandonment, you must heal the earliest time that you experienced it. This way, you will also relieve yourself from the subsequent 49 traumas.

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There is no cookie cutter solution to dealing with trauma, but the most effective way to begin the healing process is by contacting a therapist or licensed professional who specializes in trauma work. You can also try the following activity, ideally in the company of a therapist, coach, or compassionate friend who can assist with role playing:

  • Write down the particular kinds of pains of your past, such as abandonment, rejection, social exclusion, loneliness, and shame.

  • Trace each trauma back to the first time that you felt that way. (i.e. the first time you felt a sense of shame was when your mom hit you when you were 4 years old.)

  • With a nonjudgmental, compassionate mindset, invite your younger self to say it is whatever he/she feels when reflecting on that first traumatic moment. This is an opportunity to give yourself the comfort and compassion that younger you needed.

During this activity, try to avoid rationalizing your emotions or punishing yourself with phrases such as “just get over it.” It’s important to trust the process and understand that it may time multiple rounds to heal. Nonetheless, it’s never too late to heal from childhood trauma.

Recovery Fusion Santa Barbara Addiction Treatment works in tandem with licensed professionals to help individuals overcome childhood trauma and develop lives filled with passion and purpose. Our dedicated Recovery Support Specialists validate, supporting, advocate, encourage, and coach each client through their individualized path to healing. For more information or to speak with one of our specialists, call (805)689-1256.

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