At some point in life, many people experience some form of trauma. This may be a personal trauma that occurs at home or in the workplace. It might also be a collective trauma, such as the trauma experienced by many in the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
A number of books have been written about trauma and how to heal from it. Two books we recommend are Untangling the Mind: Why We Behave the Way We Do by David Theodore (“Ted”) George and What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey. For those of you who don’t have the time or inclination to explore this topic more deeply, we’d like to share a few points that everyone should be aware of since the ripple effects of trauma can affect relationships and the ability to work effectively.
Trauma Is Common
For starters, trauma can occur from many types of experiences and it is much more common than most of us realize. The most frequent cause of trauma is thought to be sexual abuse. For other people, they may have been the victim of domestic abuse or violence or they were exposed to those scary situations in the home environment as a child. Being in a minor car accident or being bullied in the workplace can trigger trauma. Even if you have not personally experienced trauma, it is likely that someone you know has.
Trauma Leads to a Chronic Stress Response
In our “Creating a Connection Culture” workshops for managers and leaders, we teach that trauma is a stressor because it often causes damage to our brains that leads to a state of chronic (i.e., ongoing) stress response. Another way to state this is that people who have been traumatized can become stuck in a state of constant stress and anxiety. This state is like having a car in Park, pressing the gas pedal to the floor to rev up the engine, and then keeping it there, straining the engine while the car remains in place. It is only a matter of time before damage begins. The revving up of a human body to a state of high stress will burn it out and impair the individual’s wellness, wellbeing, and performance.
Trauma Can Cause People to Overreact
Another point to keep in mind is that people who have experienced trauma will often overreact to perceived slights or threats. Biologically, trauma has been shown to cause damage to a switch in the human brain that leads to the periaqueductal gray, a part of our brain that determines fight, flight, or shutdown response to threats. The effect of this damage is that trauma often makes people so sensitive to threat that their brain misperceives something in their environment as threatening when in fact it is not. An example that is frequently given is the returning military veteran with PTSD who hears the sound of a car backfiring and misperceives it as gunfire. In addition to sound, a triggering stimulus can also be a sight or an odor that the brain associates with the traumatic event.
Trauma Can Lead to Other Mental Health Struggles and Burnout
You may see a rise in emotions such as anger, fear, or depression. As we wrote in the 2nd edition of Connection Culture, based on conversations with Ted George, here are other reactions:
- Thought processes become programmed for survival. Black-and-white thinking overtakes rational thinking.
- Vulnerability is minimized. The ability to trust and to either love or receive love is impaired. Feeling numb or detached from others becomes the norm.
- The future becomes darkened. Preoccupation with the past serves as a constant reminder that the threatening circumstances could return. One must be vigilant and ready! Healthy relationships seem out of reach.
- Experiencing extreme emotions and associated behaviors is exhausting. Not understanding how they arise is troubling. The need to reach out for help is perceived as an exercise in futility.
- Drugs and alcohol often are used to dampen emotional pain.
The effects of trauma also factor into burnout which progresses from emotional exhaustion to depersonalization to a diminished sense of personal accomplishment, according to the academic researchers Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter.
Human Connection Can Help to Heal Trauma
The good news is that caring human connections help heal the damage caused by trauma. Speaking with a licensed mental health professional may be needed. We can each play a part by offering simple connections such as smiling, saying hello, using people’s first names, offering sincere affirmations, and finding ways to help others. These seemingly small acts can also be a source of healing the damage done by trauma.
The Bottom Line
Trauma has far-reaching consequences, but simple acts of connection can make a difference. Helping others on their journey of healing and moving forward is yet another reason greater human connection is needed today.
Katharine P. Stallard co-authored this article.