Most of us know what trauma is — that state of shock people go into after suffering some crisis, loss, or abuse. Peter Levine, in Healing Trauma, writes that people “can be traumatized by any event they perceive (consciously or unconsciously) to be life threatening.” And we can accept and work through that. But we often fail to recognize retraumatization when it occurs. And it certainly may re-surface if triggered by a trauma reminder or if the initial trauma was not fully processed. This may have happened if the person were a child at the time and did not have the full awareness to process completely, or if the person’s traumatic response was to avoid or hide the feelings.
It doesn’t take a major event to call forth someone’s prior trauma, especially if he/she has not worked through the trauma entirely. We probably have all seen someone cry at a funeral of a person he barely knew. The answer may be that the crier has “gone back” and is experiencing strong reminders of an earlier loss. The reminders may even seem insignificant but call forth something that was tragic in earlier life. We have seen sounds and smells send children who have suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder back into trauma, even shutting down or disassociating.
For children who have suffered abuse and neglect, disruption in placement, or other losses, as adults we need to be cognizant of subtle changes. If a child begins acting differently, one of his trauma triggers may have been tripped, and he may shut down or even react violently to something mundane. There could be symptoms of hyper-arousal, flashbacks, numbing of feelings, detachment from relationships, physical symptoms of pain, attempts to be controlling, regression to earlier behaviors, recurring nightmares and dreams, bed-wetting, clinginess, and withdrawal. Parents may report more acting-out, or more staring off into space. Instead of a behavioral issue, it might be some re-trauma happening.
We cannot always prevent re-traumatization but we must be careful not to ignore it or to purposely cause it. When it happens to children, we must be there to help them process it, guiding them and giving them the tools to handle the tough memories as they occur. Many children go into fear and this fear can appear as defiance. We need to identify the motivation of the behavior and then help the child to walk through the trauma in a different way this time.
Revisiting a trauma may actually be useful in allowing a child the experience of healing. In fact, it may be possible that the child did not have the capabilities to handle the trauma at the time immediately following the incident but may now possess the maturity, cognitive ability, and the support system to make him/her more resilient to the stress of the trauma now.
In helping a child revisit the trauma or process the retraumatization, Levine recommends that parents be aware of their own reactions, pay attention to the child’s body responses and words, support those reactions, be there for the child, and to be able to revisit the experience later, through play, art, or storytelling.
Not only do children revisit trauma but adults often experience this too. Adults may over-react to certain situations and may not even recognize what the symptoms mean or what the motivations for their actions are. In fact they may not know that they are in trauma until they come back to therapy and it is identified. Understanding the reactions as revisiting the trauma can then empower clients to be able to understand and process their way through the trauma. Often people have to do this work to be able to move forward in healthy relationships.
Returning to the trauma of our past need not be a set-back but may instead be an opening, a chance to re-visit the cause and the reaction of the initial trauma and then to process in a different, more healthy way.
Levine, Peter A. (2005). Healing trauma: A pioneering program for restoring the wisdom of your body. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, Inc.Tags: being aware of signs of trauma, preventing trauma, signs of trauma, trauma
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
Licensed Professional Counselor
Advanced Clinical HypnoTherapist
- Deb England began working part-time for Wholeness Healing Center in September 2004 and began full-time in May 2005. Deb practices primarily in the Broken Bow office and one day a week in the Grand Island office. Previously she had completed her practicum and internship at Morning Star Alliance, working in the Broken Bow and Grand Island offices.
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