Trauma is a complex topic with many layers, so my goal here is to provide a very basic understanding.
What affects one teen doesn’t necessarily affect another teen.
Trauma is based on the individual’s perception and experience of an event as distressing and/or life-threatening.
For example, let’s say that you’re driving your car with your friend, and out of nowhere your car is hit by a distracted driver in a red Honda. Your car needs minor repairs, but luckily you and your friend walk away without a single scratch. The other driver is unharmed as well.
A couple days pass. Your friend is fine, but you’re not.
You’re experiencing intense nightmares that keep you up at night. No matter how hard you try to get the images of the accident out of your head, the images just pop up making it difficult to concentrate on tasks and other daily projects.
If that wasn’t enough, you feel startled when you hear a car honk. And you can't drive alone because of the intense panic you feel in your body when you get behind the wheel. So, now you're forced into having other people drive you from place to place.
The incident wasn’t even that big of a deal.
At least, that's what your think.
This is a common response I hear from clients. Our mind does a great job of lessening the severity of scary situations, especially when no injury occurred. Or when we compare our experience to "the worst case scenario" of what could have happened...
Basically, the body makes a physical note of our sensations whether it’s sweaty palms, a racing heart or a flush of heat radiating through our body.
And, these physical notes happen whenever anything reminds us of the traumatic event. Still using the example of the car accident above, you might start to panic when a car honks or begin to sweat profusely when you see a red car.
Even if the distressing event happened 10 years ago, the body can still remember.
I find that teens and parents are usually surprised by this, but remember: The body remembers and makes a physical note.
Often times, I find that adolescents can’t provide a story for why their body is reacting the way it is. I like to tell teens that it's okay, you don't need the story.
Adolescents don’t always have to have a start-to-finish narrative because the body already knows. And, often times that is sufficient to begin the work in therapy and why my therapeutic approach integrates body awareness.
Okay, all this is great information, but it only happened one time.
This is another common question I hear. The reality is that trauma doesn't pick and choose this person over that person. We are all vulnerable to trauma.
It's important to understand that a traumatic reaction can occur from a one-time incident (such as a car accident) or through reoccurring and prolonged incidents, including repeated childhood abuse.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, known as PTSD, is an anxiety disorder that some people develop after experiencing a life-threatening incident.
It's important to highlight that the life-threatening incident does not have to be a direct threat to the person, but can also be an indirect threat such as witnessing violence against someone else.
PTSD can be better understood through three symptom clusters as follows:
The re-living of the traumatic event through uncontrollable images or flashbacks.
People report feeling as though they’re watching the traumatic event happen in slow motion as if the experience is happening in “real time” or in the here-and-now.
Avoiding any reminders of the event including people, places, images, sounds, etc.
Talking about the traumatic event is so often avoided as well.
Feeling on edge or watching your environment on high alert to ensure your safety isn't compromised.
Often times, people report having difficulties sleeping and/or nightmares, experiencing agitation, and difficulties concentrating.
Some people also experience self-destructive behaviors such as self-harm, poor decision making, and substance use.
Experiencing a traumatic event can feel chaotic because it throws the mind into alarm, constricts breathing, and overwhelms the body.
Providing teens with the space to contain these overwhelming feelings and experience the sensations in their body is my top priority.
My gradual approach allows clients to return to the sensations in their body first, before ever even having to talk about their traumatic experience. My hope is that teens leave therapy with the resources to experience a still mind and the confidence to live in their body again.
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