This post is meant to give an illustration of the nuanced and less obvious presentations of trauma that can occur following events that were traumatic or had aspects of trauma to them.
In October of 2020, I lost my father suddenly and fairly unexpectedly. As a therapist specializing in trauma, I have been curious about whether I experienced this as a traumatic event that will require intervention, in addition to allowing myself to continually process the deep grief I continue to experience. I got my answer yesterday as I was meeting with a client via telehealth on my phone. I was looking at my client on the screen and a call from my husband pops through. An unexpected cascade of events and experiences rapidly unfolded. I am not sure if they all happened in this linear fashion, most likely not, but here are the pieces of what happened all within a micromoment of my life.
I looked at the clock, saw that it was mid hour and assumed my husband should know I was in session. I felt fear; I felt anxiety; I asked myself why he was calling. I had an intrusive flashback… I could see in my mind’s eye the day my husband showed up at my office unannounced and interrupted my session with a client on telehealth to inform me right then and there that my father had passed away. I froze; I felt shock; my mind went completely blank. For a solid minute I was not at all present to my client, did not hear what they said, my body was tense, my breath shallow.
I share this story because my years in the field and my own personal traumatic experiences have taught me that trauma is not always super obvious. Many people would have passed over that moment in their lives and gave it no thought. The above described experience all happened in less than a minute’s time. But because I am who I am, I took note.. I allowed the experience to speak to me and give me the answer that I needed. Yes Alyson there is some trauma here and this is where you start processing it. Tap on the memory of John (my husband) showing up that day. It’s important to me to educate people about the nuanced experiences of trauma that are less obvious and recognizable than ones we often envision those suffering the effects of trauma to experience. Those more obvious responses are real as well, but so are the less obvious ones.
I will break down the information from above and show how it is connected to trauma and the experience of it. For starters, many people understand that trauma reactions are often triggered by something. Triggers can be externally produced i.e. something we see, hear, touch, taste, a location we find ourselves in, and/or something that is internally produced – a thought, a body sensation, a feeling. They are not always obvious and they are not always singular. In this case John calling and interrupting my session did not necessarily trigger this traumatic reaction although it appeared that it did. I say that because this circumstance has happened before post my father’s passing and it did not cause this reaction. It was that he interrupted my session AND I then had the thought that he should know I am in session and what is he doing? It was the combination of the interruption (external trigger) and the thoughts (internal trigger), in addition to the location of being in my office (external trigger) that likely led to the rest of the response. This is because this is the exact experience I had the day he came to tell me about my Dad’s passing. My body remembered the sensory and internal experience of that day and as a result my stress response system became instantaneously triggered.
My experience of fear and anxiety in reaction to his call demonstrate to me that these are emotions that became stuck in my body at the time of John entering my office that day in October. There was a moment as he stood in the doorway that I was full of anxiety and intense fear not knowing what the hell he was going to do or say next. As I type, I have further somatic evidence of these emotions being stuck as I can feel a tensing, pit like sensation in my stomach and I can feel my heart beating in my chest as I choose to place focus on these emotions in particular.
“I froze; I felt shock; my mind went completely blank” This was me re-experiencing the traumatic event (a criteria for traumatic reactions), as it was the exact collection of experiences I had after John told me that my Dad had passed and I needed to end my session with my client. This response is part of our stress response system being activated. Instantaneously before I could even formulate the words, “What the f*ck” to express my shock and horror, my intense emotions had activated my amygdala which then activated my stress response known as the fight, flight, freeze, fawn, faint response. In those moments, I literally froze briefly and my mind went blank (evidence of my prefrontal lobe literally shutting off due to an intense activation of the stress response). This was my experience that day and I was re-experiencing this exact response sitting there in my office with no actual threat or horror occurring.
“For a solid minute, I was not at all present to my client, did not hear what they said, my body was tense, my breath shallow.” This was evidence of my body’s shut down, which was only brief that day my husband called due to my ability to use my knowledge base and somatic awareness to recognize what was happening in my body as a traumatic reaction and to then use my breath and consciousness to deactivate my stress response and return my attention to my client. If you tragically or suddenly lost someone, I am sure you can relate to the shut down that occurs for a longer duration and how your internal world becomes much louder and more present than the external one.
I share my personal experience with you today with the intention of providing you with a real life example of trauma and how it works. My hope is that it will shed some light on two things I have learned to be true: 1) Experiences that we may not think to recognize as traumatic because they are a part of life and others have experienced them such as the loss of a parent, may in fact be traumatic to us. 2) Trauma symptoms and trauma still hanging out in your body may present in ways that are not immediately obvious to us. Not everyone who goes through a trauma and experiences its effects meet criteria for PTSD or another trauma related disorder. However, if we educate and train ourselves on how to recognize unresolved pieces of trauma in our bodies we can seek support in releasing this trauma from our bodies, which will serve our mental, physical, and emotional health.
Look for Part 2 of this series of articles for information about my preferred way of processing trauma and other methods that are out there.