Editor’s note: In partnership with the Center for Community Counseling, The Chronicle publishes monthly columns addressing mental-health issues in our community. Reach out for help at 541-344-0620 and.ccceugene.org.
Dear reader: Congratulations, you’ve made it to today. Surviving these traumatic times is an accomplishment. Sexual Assault Support Services supports people who are surviving sexual violence, so we think a lot about what it means to survive and cope with trauma. But, what is trauma, really? Most people are familiar with stress and anxiety, but many don’t know what trauma looks like, why our bodies respond to trauma the way they do, or how to cope with those responses. So here are some important trauma basics:
Trauma responses are natural, protective, physical adaptations to threats. Everyone’s brain has an alert system that’s on the lookout for threats. When it perceives a threat, it goes into the “fight, flight, freeze” response, releasing hormones that prime the body for survival by changing respiration, heart rate, digestive function, focus and more. This is healthy — when a person’s safety is threatened, having this threat response could mean the difference between living and dying. Humans evolved these strategies to survive!
Being “triggered” is also a real, physical experience. If a person has experienced a trauma, their alert system often goes into high alert to prevent that trauma from happening again. So that alert system can be “triggered” just by reminders of that trauma. Whether there’s a present threat or not, the body releases those same threat response hormones, causing all of the physical “fight, flight, freeze” responses. It’s like a fire alarm that responds to just a wisp of steam — it’s good to have the alarm system for when there’s a real fire, but miserable to have it go off when there’s no flames around. And the physical responses cause more anxiety, turning the alarm up louder in a negative anxiety feedback loop.
Coping strategies help us return to calm by turning the alarm off (or at least lowering the volume). Breathing and grounding exercises stop the panic feedback loop by calming the physical responses. Long-term self-care practices (like yoga or journaling) can be great for healing, but often aren’t helpful when a person is triggered. If your brain thinks it’s fighting for its life, you might not find a bath to be very relaxing! At these moments, starting with the physical is often more useful.
Coping mechanisms are morally neutral. What if, rather than meditating, someone copes by eating an entire container of cookies, binging TV, or getting drunk? Just like doing a breathing exercise, those behaviors will probably help calm the body. They may have different consequences but aren’t immoral. SASS hopes that everyone can make safe, healthy choices, but that’s not always possible. You’re still a good person even if the things you’re doing to survive trauma aren’t pretty. Using substances to avoid feeling panic isn’t a healthy long-term strategy, but sometimes, it’s all a person can do to get to tomorrow, and we don’t judge anyone for surviving however they can.
Finally, everyone deserves support. Often, sexual violence survivors avoid seeking help because they think that their trauma “doesn’t count” or that they don’t deserve care because other people have had “worse” traumas. This is simply wrong. Any trauma survivor, no matter what they have experienced, deserves care. Organizations like SASS are here to offer that care. We can listen, guide you through grounding exercises, introduce you to new tools to use on your healing journey, or just be there with you while you get through a bad moment.
Remember: You don’t deserve to suffer and you aren’t alone. SASS’s Crisis and Support Line is available 24/7 at 541-343-7277 or 844-404-7700. See sass-lane.org.
Martina Shabram, Ph.D., is the Education and Outreach Program Manager for Sexual Assault Support Services in Eugene. Contact her at 541-221-3308 and [email protected]