Just keep breathin'...
Contributed by Tracie L Keller, LPCC-S
Trauma. It’s a word that we have all likely heard at some time in our lives. And like it or not, it’s something that we all have or will experience in some way in our lives.
So what is trauma? In my practice, I use a very simple example to describe what trauma can look [and feel] like.
If I stub my toe, it hurts. It hurts for maybe a few seconds; if it’s bad enough, maybe a few minutes. But after the initial shock of the blow, my body calms and the event can become something that just sort of happened.
But what if I stubbed my toe over and over; maybe for weeks on end, I’d hit the same spot, feel that same pain. What might happen to my toe? Certainly there’d be a mark. Certainly that mark would leave an impact on me. Maybe I’d walk differently for a while. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to wear the same shoes or do the same activities that I regularly do. And maybe I’d be extra cautious and aware of the fact that I could stub my toe again. Maybe that awareness would make it challenging—or anxiety producing—for me to even walk around.
If you find yourself wondering why I’m going on and on about stubbing a toe, it’s because I’ve just described [in a very benign way] a trauma experience.
In short, a trauma leaves a mark. Traumas come in all shapes and sizes; they come in forms that are not always recognized culturally as a trauma. But they are. Examples include: surviving a life-threatening event, experiencing an assault, surviving childhood physical/sexual/emotional abuse, or losing an intimate partner/relationship in your life. Other traumas that I see in my work with clients may include betrayal within a marriage, loss of a job, health complications or diseases, or something that we call “secondary trauma”—an experience that comes from observing or secondarily experiencing a trauma. Secondary traumas can happen for helpers such as therapists, healthcare workers, teachers, or anyone who is intimate with a person who has experienced a primary trauma.
See, I told you everyone experiences these.
Pop music star Ariana Grande just released an album with a song on it called, “Breathin.” The song documents her experience of anxiety that she noted an increase in following surviving the Manchester Bombing in 2017. In the song, the singer writes:
Some days, things just take way too much of my energy
I look up and the whole room's spinning
You take my cares away
I can so overcomplicate, people tell me to medicate
Feel my blood runnin', swear the sky's fallin'
How do I know if this shit's fabricated?
Time goes by and I can't control my mind
Don't know what else to try, but you tell me every time
Just keep breathin
Breath work is an important part of healthy and adaptive coping, often taught during treatment for anxiety or trauma. If you’re interested in learning some basic approaches to breath work, follow this link to an article from Psych Central: https://psychcentral.com/blog/reduce-your-anxiety-this-minute-3-different-types-of-deep-breathing/. I’m thinking Ms. Grande must really like breath work, based on the lyrics described above.
Thankfully, there are a number of treatments available for healing traumas that extend beyond “just keep-ing breathing.” EMDR and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are two approaches that aim to help a person who has lived through a trauma heal/desensitize self to trauma memories/experiences, find ways to cope that are healthy and adaptive, and empower client to move forward. Through these approaches, a person can make a trauma experience a part of their story or something that happened to them once. If a trauma is not healed, it can become the entire story of a person’s life, or said more simplistically, a person can feel that they are their trauma.
If after reading this post, you’re wondering if you would benefit from treatment of anxiety or trauma, reach out to a mental health professional and discuss options. As in my example given above related to “stubbing my toe,” I think it’s helpful to normalize that we all have experiences that “leave marks” in life, and it’s okay to get some help to heal them. In my experience in treating trauma, I’ve found the clients I’ve worked with on these issues to be strong, resilient, and forces to reckon with. Through trauma healing, however, they’ve gone on to live the lives that they are meant to live. And after all, isn’t that what all of us are after?