I was reminded this week how important it is that individuals who have experienced significant adversity and/or trauma have an understanding about the impact of their trauma even though it might have been years ago.
The ACES research has reminded us that children who have had certain life adversities have life-long consequences that can be physical, emotional, relational, and behavioral. Even though every child reacts differently, it still has a significant impact into adulthood.
I was in conversation with an individual who has had a childhood that was emotionally and physically abusive. His journey has been extremely difficult including addictions, mental health issues, behavioral acting out and chronic and severe anxiety and depression. He has been through a variety of therapeutic approaches and finally found a trauma trained counselor. He has worked very hard and has made amazing progress. He is off any meds, has a productive life and is working towards becoming more of a contributor to society. He now better recognizes the needs of others while realizing his own potential once he grasped the impact and strategies for his trauma.
His concern was that he felt he had some kind of sudden relapse. He said it felt like a “mental breakdown.” He was incapable of functioning for about 4 hours and was personally defeated that all the work he had done was in vain. He was wise to reserve judgement until he could speak to someone who knew about trauma and who could give him an explanation for why this happened and why it was so debilitating.
He and I talked for a while and explored what happened and if there were any triggers that would bring about this kind of potent reaction. He said that he had the sensation of falling and could do nothing about it. I asked about falling experiences in his past and he started recounting falling down the steps as a result of a traumatic encounter. He broke his leg and that started a series of life difficulties that led to a number of life crises and eventual long-term addictions.
Even though that life event was decades old it had resurfaced. Trauma experts like Bessel Van der Kolk have written about this phenomenon where the body keeps a record of trauma events and they resurface based on anniversaries, similar life circumstances and reactivated memories.
There is the potential to relive those events and the emotions can have the same strength as the original reaction. It is called dissociation and for individuals who have had serious trauma it can reoccur at unpredictable times in unpredictable ways.
After this discovery he was filled with tears of relief. He was ecstatic that he was able to understand how his brain was working and that he could be resolved that this was a past experience that he was remembering. It was not a “mental breakdown” but rather a reenacted memory that could be described, explained and understood. That trauma knowledge made all the difference in how he understood his emotions and reaction.
Whether you’re a trauma-impacted individual or a trained therapist, trauma knowledge makes a significant difference in your understanding of these kinds of reactions. Also, when an individual is unaware of this kind of knowledge they can make conclusions that are inaccurate and misleading. This kind of understanding of the long-term impact of trauma can be helpful to interpret our emotions and reactions accurately. It can also help us find treatment strategies that are more attuned to the actual need of the moment.