The reason why trauma is causing professional burnout.
If we don’t recognize when the people we are helping are struggling with trauma, we can't help them heal.
“...trauma is much more than a story about something that happened long ago. The emotions and physical sensations that were imprinted during the trauma are experienced not as memories but as disruptive physical reactions in the present.” (van der Kolk, 2014, p 206)
Despite trauma being a hot topic in helping professions, most of the information we encounter barely scratches the surface of how those we’re serving struggle with trauma and ways we can help our clients navigate trauma recovery.
To truly understand trauma, we must first understand the basic biology and neurology of what is happening when we experience trauma.
Normal Stress Response
First, let’s talk about a normal stress response. This is something we all experience as we navigate our day-to-day lives.
When we encounter a situation in which our brain registers a threat, be it physical, emotional, financial, or social, our brain tells our body to prepare for fight-or-flight.
As a result, our body responds by increasing our heart rate and tensing our muscles. Our digestive system shuts down to save blood flow for our arms and legs. Our breathing becomes rapid and shallow. We are best prepared to respond to this potential danger.
Once that danger is gone, our brain then tells our body to go back to a rest & digest state. Our heart rate and blood pressure drop. Our breathing becomes slower and deeper. Our digestive system comes back online. We are safe now; we can rest.
With a trauma response, we go through the same process as a normal stress response. The major difference is that when the threat is gone, or if the threat doesn’t go away, our brain continues to tell our body to stay prepared to fight or flee for extended periods of time. When our brain registers that the fight-or-flight response is not working, we develop additional survival techniques– freeze or fawn.
A fight response enables us to address the threat directly. Physically, this shows up in the same way that it does in a normal stress response– muscle tension, increased heart rate, shallow, rapid breathing, and slowed digestion. When this response is used in the long term, it shows up emotionally and behaviorally as being quick to anger, irritability, the need to be in control, and aggression.
A flight response is an attempt to avoid the danger either physically by leaving or mentally by checking out. Physically, this shows up as restlessness; jitters; increased heart rate; shallow, rapid breathing; and digestive distress. Emotionally and behaviorally, when used in the long term, flight looks like anxiety, obsessiveness, difficulty being present and focused, and engaging in risky behaviors.
A freeze response happens when our body and brain shut down to minimum viable functioning. This is an attempt to avoid the danger. Physically, this response is accompanied by symptoms like extreme fatigue, difficulty thinking clearly, and feeling disconnected to self. Emotionally and behaviorally, symptoms present as depression, isolation and withdrawal, and apathy.
A fawn response is a newer development in human evolution as it utilizes the complex social dynamics in order to adapt to a dangerous environment. Fawning is a technique in which we set aside our wants and needs to focus on the wants and needs of others so that we feel safer. This shows up in thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that interfere with our ability to take care of ourselves.
Someone who is fawning might have the mindset that if the people around them are happy, they are happy. If they take care of others, they won’t be abandoned or rejected. If other people’s needs are met, then their needs will be met by others.
A Trauma Recovery Focused Approach
It’s essential that we, as helping professionals, recognize when a client is exhibiting these symptoms and signs of a trauma response, even if we don’t understand why. Why someone is exhibiting signs of trauma is significantly less important than how the symptoms are showing up and interfering with our clients’ lives.
A trauma recovery focused approach is one in which we recognize that every person has most likely experienced trauma as defined by the biological and neurological functions of survival. This approach asks us helping professionals to recognize the symptoms of trauma and help others first regulate their physiology by modeling self-regulation skills and by educating them about how their brain and body is responding to the perception of danger.
“Sooner or later you need to confront what has happened to you, but only after you feel safe and will not be retraumatized by it. The first order of business is to find ways to cope with feeling overwhelmed by the sensations and emotions associated with the past.” (van der Kolk, 2014, p 206)
Up next: “How does a Trauma Recovery Focused Approach™ help me help others?”