Trauma [noun] – Severe emotional shock and pain caused by an extremely upsetting experience. This Cambridge dictionary definition seems simple enough, but for those who work with vulnerable people, the experience is far more complex.
“Trauma is often very misinterpreted,” says Kerrie Moore, an Integrative Healing Therapist at the University of Calgary. “Very few people understand what trauma is, and that stands as one of the barriers to getting out from trauma.”
Trauma is the result of toxic stress, which is stress that occurs on an ongoing basis, such as physical or emotional abuse, neglect, exposure to violence, experiencing economic hardship and more. Toxic stress is common among people who have little control over their environment, such as children.
When someone experiences trauma, they can stop growing emotionally, and may be at risk of experiencing depression, anger or lack of hope as they grow into adults.
“There are a lot of people who don’t realize they have trauma,” Moore says. “People don’t often see things like sleeplessness, anxiety, addictions or physical illness as the result of trauma. They think, ‘I’ve just had a bad day. It’ll get better.’”
But when things don’t get better, Moore says, it can affect people on a very deep level. Children, especially, are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health issues as a result of trauma, because their brains are still developing.
“If you are a child living in an environment where there is trauma around you, you’re seeing and hearing it every day,” Moore says. “That can deeply affect whether you are able to trust people, form appropriate attachments or regulate your emotions in a healthy way.”
Unless there is an intervention, she says, children who have been impacted by trauma may experience behavioural issues as young adults and be unable to control their emotions in an age-appropriate way when they experience stressful situations as adults.
When Ada* came to Closer to Home, she didn’t understand how deeply the trauma from her past and present was affecting her life. She had experienced neglect and abuse as a child, and now she was living with domestic violence. As they witnessed the abuse, her kids were also experiencing trauma, and they were at risk of being removed from the home.
Our first priority was getting Ada and her kids into a safe situation. Once that was achieved, we began working closely with Ada to help her understand how her trauma had impacted her life, and how her children’s trauma played a role in some of their challenging behaviours. She realized that her kids were reacting to triggers associated with the trauma, and we began developing plans and integrating strategies to work through the family’s experiences. With Ada’s hard work and the positive guidance and patience of our staff, she learned about coping strategies, began developing safety plans, improved her parenting skills and learned about other helpful resources in her community.
Today, Ada and her kids are safe, happy, and continuing to work through their experiences to live beyond the trauma.
Moore notes that few therapists are trained in trauma therapy, particularly from a cultural lens. At Closer to Home, we understand that working through trauma means healing in four dimensions: spiritually, emotionally, physically and mentally. We are currently working alongside Moore to develop an intercultural model of practice to address the intergenerational trauma experienced by many of our clients. The model is designed to provide healing, and will be implemented later this year within our Ee-Des-Spoom-Ooh-Soop program.
“I think the most important thing for people to know is that trauma is treatable,” says Moore. “Once we understand where the trauma is coming from, we can begin to heal the spirit and emotions, move into our cognitive brains and begin to become independent thinkers.”
Arlene Oostenbrink, Associate Director at Closer to Home, says it’s important for those who are struggling with the impacts of trauma and their mental health to stay connected to caring people.
“Don’t let it isolate you,” she says. “Reach out to those around you, whether it’s a loved one or a professional, and talk to them. And if you notice a loved one struggling, offer your support and let them know they are not alone.”
For more information and to find mental health services near you, contact Health Link at 811.
* Name changed to protect privacy