(Content warning: This post contains discussion of trauma, physical violence, and assault. If this is an issue for you, we can help. Please skip to the last paragraph for information about our Trauma program for women.)
Megan* came to FCA after recognizing a pattern of unhealthy relationships where she was often belittled and abused. She expressed concern about her sense of judgement and could not understand how or why she kept choosing partners with such similar characteristics. Megan had believed for so long that there were things she was “supposed to do” in relationships and if those things weren’t done, an appropriate consequence was having her car taken away, or worse, being physically assaulted. She was struggling with feeling “on edge” and “jumpy” whenever her partner was around and struggled with sleeping due to having constant nightmares about her own safety. She came to FCA to ask why.
As human beings we are a sum of our experiences. Everything we have done, seen, and heard has the potential to affect the way we perceive reality, think, and make decisions. Some experiences have the potential to influence our thought processes and behaviors more than others because of the impact those experiences have on our brains and body. Traumatic experiences are an example of such, as they have the potential to impact us neurologically, socially, emotionally, and physically. Whether we are aware of it or not, we have likely experienced something traumatic: something that increased our heart rate, made our hands sweaty, left us feeling confused or agitated, or gave us nightmares. In the U.S. alone, nearly 70% of adults have experienced one or more traumatic events throughout their lifetime. Even if you may not believe you have survived something traumatic, it is highly likely that you care deeply about someone who has.
Something is considered to be traumatic when it causes us neurological distress - meaning, when our brains tell our bodies to switch over to survival mode where we either fight, flee, or freeze. What can make trauma and its effects difficult to understand is that what is considered traumatic for one person may not be for another. This happens because many other factors are involved than just the incident itself, including the amount of social support the person has, whether they have survived anything traumatic in the past, and whether they have been taught how to implement healthy and effective coping strategies. A traumatic incident or incidents can influence so many things from how we feel about ourselves, how we interact with others, and how we are able to regulate our emotions to the way our brains function. Trauma, especially when repeated or chronic, can rewire our brain from responding to a threat with a typical fight/flight/freeze response to the body’s stress response becoming chronically activated, which can lead to a constant state of fear or anxiety.
What are examples of things that can be considered traumatic? Many people would first think of physical or sexual abuse, military combat, car accidents, and being a victim of a crime. But trauma can also be:
●Loss of pregnancy or Infertility
●Death of a loved one
●Having an absent parent
When we are presented with a traumatic incident or repeated incidents our brain communicates to our bodies that we need to do one thing: survive. If our body’s stress response system is overactive or chronically activated, our natural immune systems will weaken over time and we can develop behavioral symptoms as our bodies struggle to maintain a sense of balance.
Symptoms of trauma exposure can include:
●Difficulty maintaining interpersonal relationships
●Self-blame and low self-esteem
●Sleep problems or nightmares
●Difficulty regulating emotions
●Self-harm and suicide attempts
●Black & white, all-or-nothing thinking
●Addictive behaviors & substance use
●Feeling jumpy or easily startled
●Long-term, chronic health issues
If you have ever noticed patterns of increased heart rate, avoidance, physical illness, headaches, or any of the above symptoms when you see a particular person, go to a particular place, hear a song, or smell a familiar smell, you may have been experiencing a trauma trigger. Without realizing it, we may avoid certain people, places, or objects in an effort to keep ourselves safe, which is an example of how our trauma experiences can influence our thoughts and behaviors. Another more harmful example is the use of substances or engaging in dangerous behaviors to help maintain a sense of personal control over our symptoms.
In the way trauma can rewire our brain, trauma-informed care through individual and group therapy can help us to learn how to effectively regulate our systems, develop healthy and effective coping skills, build distress tolerance, and increase our sense of self-worth.
At FCA, we offer a weekly group for women ages 18 and older using the Trauma Recovery & Empowerment Model curriculum.
Megan began to participate in that group along with meeting with a therapist once a week to answer her question: “Why?” Megan was able to connect with other women who have gone through similar experiences and began to identify patterns between her relationships and the relationship she saw between her mother and father when she was young. She learned how to effectively regulate her nervous system, helping to take her body out of that chronically activated state. Megan is now able to identify when she is feeling triggered and how to effectively manage those situations while seeking out healthier relationships.
The 24-week Trauma Recovery & Empowerment Model (TREM) group is open to all women, 18 and older, and can be joined at any time. The group meets each Monday from 1 p.m. - 2:30 p.m. and is led by two female Licensed Clinical Social Workers with extensive trauma training and trauma certifications. Insurance is accepted, the program operates on a sliding-scale for those who are uninsured, and nobody will be turned away for financial reasons. If you or someone you know is interested in joining the group, please reach out to Jessica Vivenzio at (203) 523-5793 or Xanic Wood at (203) 523-5712.
*We take privacy very seriously. This is not her real name, and identifying details have been changed or omitted.