Trauma is part of everyday life experiences

Published: Tuesday, August 18, 2020


Trauma is part of everyday life. Being in a car accident, losing a loved one, or suffering a stroke – these are traumatic events we see happening every day. 

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Social workers are among the first line helpers when families suffer trauma, such as family violence, rape, physical abuse, and substance abuse, among others. Such once-off events are not the only trauma people can experience though. Long term adverse suffering causes complex trauma and leads to C-PTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). 

“As a Child Protection Organization (CPO) we have statutory powers to remove children from home environments which cause them harm. But just being in a safe place does not mean all is well for always and in all things. The lasting effects of trauma – especially complex trauma, can not be only addressed by the court system,” explains Henda van der Merwe, director of CMR Gauteng East. 

Complex trauma is the result of a series of traumatic experiences, such as neglect, parental cruelty, domestic violence or growing up in fear, explains Educational Psychologist Mariaan de Vos. “It takes place over months/years. Alarm bells are ringing already about the unforeseen trauma caused by the current lockdown situation.

“Early adversity can have lasting effects, particularly if it remains unresolved. Trauma alters how the brain functions and also how we form and recall memories. It overwhelms the autonomic nervous system.” 

Psychologists have identified four types of ‘trauma personalities’- those who are suffering from unresolved past trauma. These include the Bully (fight), workaholic (flight) Fawn (people pleaser) and Freeze (couch potato) personalities. People all around us fit into these groups. Many of them do not even realise why they act the way they do. 

“Those who become stuck in the ‘on’ position are typically anxious, hyperactive, unable to relax and have high levels of rage or hostility. On the other end of the spectrum is the depressed, lethargic, exhausted, disconnected individual”, De Vos explains. Of course, the earlier these problems are addressed, the better. “Many adults suffer from unresolved trauma which is mirrored in their lives. They are unable to rear children without their own trauma colouring their children’s lives,” she points out.

CMR Gauteng East who reaches more than 26 000 people every year with social services, report the overall social effects they see every day: violence, uncontrolled behaviour, stunted emotional development in children, substance abuse, interpersonal problems, and many physical health problems. 

“The children we remove to places of safety often suffer with concentration problems, irritability, anger, impulsivity and the like. We also see those who self-harm (cutting), become suicidal or are victims of emotional eating problems,” says van der Merwe.

De Vos point to long-term damage: “Imagine what growing up in constant fear does to a child – it plays havoc with normal cognitive development, leads to emotional distress and disorientation” – to name but a few of the things our social workers, foster care parents and caregivers have to deal with. Of course the ideal is for everyone to have access to professional care. But there are simple things anyone can do to lessen the effects of trauma. 

“One of these is to stop and count to ten. As simple as it sounds, it gives the person the space that will allow him to choose his response in a given situation. Slow breathing, such as breathing in on a count of four, holding the breath for four counts, and breathing out on a count of four, will slow down all the physiological systems running rampant in someone who is in distress.”

De Vos adds: “Take time to be with yourself. Walk around the garden, phone a friend, build a puzzle – find something you don’t usually do – and give your emotions a break. Give yourself the opportunity not to be stuck.”

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