In the psychology and mental health field, traumas are negative events that cause psychological distress. The word “trauma” has Greek origin and it means “injury”. It was firstly used to describe physical wounds, such as a gunshot, but now it also relates to hurtful experiences which affect people’s minds, rather than just their bodies.
Traumas can derive from situations like:
- Sexual abuse.
- A car accident.
- The death of a loved one.
- Being a witness of a crime.
- Wars and violent conflicts.
- Bullying in school.
- Neglect and maltreatment during childhood.
- Domestic violence.
- And many more…
It can be difficult to know if someone has a trauma or not, because it is something interior and subjective: it can’t be seen, it can’t be heard, it can’t be touched, it can’t be tasted, it can’t be smelled. Traumas often lead to mental health illnesses, such as post traumatic stress disorder, characterised by symptoms such as nightmares, physical pain, nausea, trembling, sweating, and vivid flashbacks and thoughts about the negative event. It can also cause other issues, such as manic depression, social anxiety, paranoia and bipolar disorders.
Since it is hard to diagnose mental health illnesses, it is hard to know the impact of traumas on people. Many people go through one or more in their lives, but not everyone reacts equally. In a lot of cases, traumas can lead to mental health and emotional wellbeing problems, as said. But in others, traumas don’t have an effect on people’s mental health. Why? It is difficult to explain.
On the one hand, biology gives us facts about how the brain of people works. On the other hand, the environment gives us factors which can affect human emotions. However, not everyone fits into the same box. People can react differently to the same event. Not everyone cries when death strikes. Not everyone is able to move on from maltreatment. Not everyone needs psychological help when they break up with their partner. Not everyone has self-esteem issues when they suffer from a constant verbal abuse to their appearance. Also, people may hide their negative reaction to an event and fake a positive response.
The different ways in which people react to events in their lives is better explained through psychology and ego defence mechanisms. Ego defence mechanisms are unconscious actions and behaviours that we use to protect ourselves from distress, such as anxiety, sadness, anger etc. Here are six ego defence mechanisms, as identified by the Australian psychologist Sigmund Freud:
- Repression: repression is “forgetting” and hiding a negative memory somewhere in your mind because it causes you distress. For instance, people may keep disruptive childhood experiences, such as abuse, repressed in their minds, so in a way they are unaware of what happened till something/someone makes them remember the experience later in their lives.
- Regression: regression is returning to childish behaviour and primitive actions to cope with high levels of stress. For example, when you have to talk with someone you are attracted to but you have to hide your feelings, you can feel heated up and nervous, acting like a little kid that can’t speak very well.
- Denial: denial is an unconscious way of rejecting a reality, through ignoring it or making it surreal in your mind. A good way to illustrate denial is when someone experiences the bereavement of a relative or friend, and they keep acting like if the person was still alive.
- Displacement: displacement happens when individuals feel distressed, and they decide to pass that distress to other situations/objects/individuals which won’t react harmfully to them. A good case study of displacement is when someone has a bad day at work and they can’t argue with their bosses, so they wait to get home and then they shout at their partners, because they know that shouting at their partners won’t lead to them being fired.
- Sublimation: sublimation happens when behaviour and thoughts which are not accepted within society are expressed in a way that will be accepted within society. The most known paradigm for sublimation is the music of artists such as Eminem or P!nk: singers and rappers who write their own music often sing and rap about their life experiences, even if violent and disturbing, instead of talking normally about them.
- Projection: projection is blaming others of your own feeling of distress, or/and your own incorrect behaviour. Projection is often common in schools, where a student may fail an exam because they didn’t study, but they blame the teacher for bad-teaching or poor-marking, instead of blaming themselves.
When comes to trauma, any of these ego mechanisms can be used involuntarily to deal with it. The human mind is complex. Therefore, it is difficult to judge and understand how people react to negative experiences. And it is even more difficult finding a way to cope with them. “Be strong”. “It will be fine”. “Let it all out”. “Transform your negative energy to positive energy”. These sorts of phrases are often used to reassure traumatised people, but the orders they contain are hard to follow, and they can be dangerous. Quite dangerous.
A clear precarious piece of advice often given is “forget about it” or “ignore it”. To start with, one person may not be able to forget or ignore that their loved one died. That they were bullied. That they were victims of robbery. That they fought and killed others in a war. You can momentarily ignore the existence of certain things, but not forever. They will always come back to haunt you. Moreover, repressing and denying memories is not good. There is a limit in what the human mind can take. If you keep putting water and water inside a bottle, it will end up over flooding. And the trouble that over flooding causes can be bigger than emptying the bottle in the first place.
Another thing that shouldn’t be said when comes to traumas is phrases like “it had to happen: it was written in your destiny”. And not only because it doesn’t help. If a person is deeply spiritual, philosophical and/or religious, it may be fine, as they will understand the trauma as part of their lives, determined by cosmic energy, fate or a God. However, some things shouldn’t happen. A clear example here is rape. You CAN’T say to a rape victim “it had to happen”. By saying that, you are diminishing the culpability of the attacker and making the victim feel that what happened was ok. And this isn’t cool.
Religion, spirituality and philosophy are great methods to cope with traumas positively, don’t misunderstand me. I support them 100%, but reality is that people’s lives are severely conditioned by the actions of others, and actions change randomly. I understand that a lot of people often say that sort of phrases meaning “accept it and move on”, but just because you accept something it doesn’t mean that something was fine.
Nonetheless, acceptance is always the first step to recovery from trauma. It is probably the longest and the most difficult too. Accepting an experience can take from a few minutes to several years, but it is always the best path to try to follow. We can’t change the past. What happens, happens. All you can do is helping others or yourself, so it doesn’t happen again or you/they are ready for a possible next time.
Sometimes, people are able to accept something easily, and recover a positive emotional wellbeing and a good mental health, without the help of professionals. You can self-treat yourself through reading books, taking online courses, enrolling in relaxing activities, talking about the trauma with people you trust… And it is fine. Everyone has their own ways.
However, if since the event you experience continuous distress, anxiety, sadness, insomnia or similar irregularities, seeking professional help from a psychologist, emotional wellbeing advisor, welfare officer or counsellor is normally the way to go. I think that you know you need professional help when your feelings and thoughts are so dreadful, that you think about performing, or you perform, activities such as self-harm, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, violence or over/under eating. If you are doing, or you are thinking of doing, any of these things to cope with a trauma, you should seriously think about getting advice and support. These activities, amongst many others, can hurt you. And they can hurt others.
Furthermore, you should never voluntarily fall into regression, displacement or projection. Being immature will make things worse. Being horrible to an innocent person because of your own problems is evil and more if you know that the person won’t answer back. And blaming people of things you have caused to yourself is putting a sense of self-blame and guilt on others, which can lead to another person suffering. Don’t be that selfish. I know these mechanisms are involuntary and they can be instinctive reactions we can’t control at first. But if you keep doing any of these things to cope with distress from a trauma, you need to learn to control your impulses. There is professional help to do this if you need so.
Lastly, it is important to point out that sublimation is almost certainly a great way to deal with a trauma, but it mainly works if you are an artistic or creative person. Art and creativity come from freedom of choice and passion. Artistic and creative works usually reflect who we are, where we come from, and where we want to go. Why don’t you try writing a poem about your feelings? Or composing a melody to express your sorrows? Or drawing an abstract painting reflecting your anger? If you don’t think you are an artistic or creative person, using the works of others can help too. Read a book about a topic close to your issue. Listen to music that transmits your feelings. Go to a museum and see the paintings of an artist with a difficult life. The options are vast. And don’t forget that counsellors and psychologists can offer their own advice on how to use sublimation to live with traumas.
On conclusion: traumas are too complex to understand and too large to cage. How people deal with them varies quite a lot, depending on what caused the trauma, the brain, personality and environment of the person who suffered from it. It is always important to watch out for clear signs that indicate a person may be struggling with one. These signs often come together with mental health illnesses that affect people’s emotional wellbeing. And remember that recovering from a trauma can take a long time, and it is not easy. Humans we struggle to control our reactions sometimes, as the ego mechanisms show, and we don’t always react positively. But it is possible to accept and live with a trauma. Some people can do it alone, others may need professional help, and it has little to do with being weak or strong.