Mental Illness Awareness Week: Defining Trauma

This week is ‘Mental Illness Awareness Week’ in Canada, and there are lots of conversations being had to help raise awareness about various aspects of mental health and mental illness. PTSD is a part of the mental health puzzle that doesn’t always get a lot of attention.

“Difficult situations are part of life. We all must cope with tough circumstances, such as bereavement or conflict in our personal and professional relationships, and learn to move on. But sometimes people experience an event which is so unexpected and so shattering that it continues to have a serious effect on them, long after any physical danger involved has passed. Individuals with this kind of experience may suffer flashbacks and nightmares, in which they relive the situation that caused them intense fear and horror. They may become emotionally numb. When this condition persists for over a month, it is diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” – CMHA

Individuals who survive trauma and have stress reactions (or re-traumatization) can develop PTSD, and it can have a damaging effect both physically and mentally. The effects of PTSD can range from flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, detachment, etc. However, many people with PTSD develop additional disorders such as depression, addiction and various other physical and mental health issues.

If some of these things sound familiar to you, you’re not alone. Trauma is an epidemic. Whether it’s you, or someone you know, it affects us all.

But there is hope in healing.

“In healing from trauma, it’s not so much what happened to you, but how you deal with it that has the most impact on how you cope. I used to work with a veteran who had just returned from Afghanistan. He told me he believed he would be better when he no longer remembered his trauma. And I said, “And then you’ll be dead.” It’s impossible to erase the memory of trauma; it’s how you deal with it that matters.” — Kim Barthel from ‘Conversations with a Rattlesnake’

PTSD manifests itself in three major categories for sufferers: hyper-arousal, re-traumatization and numbness.

  • Hyper-arousal: this is when a person’s physiology is in high-gear, not being able to “reset”. Symptoms of this include: insomnia, difficulty concentrating, irritability, anger, panic and agitation.
  • Re-traumatization: symptoms of this include nightmares or flashbacks, over-exaggerated reactions to triggers, and completely re-experiencing the trauma whether physically or mentally.
  • Numbness: experiencing numbness looks like: loss of interest in passions/life, hopelessness, isolation and avoidance of your thoughts or feelings.

People with prolonged symptoms resulting from trauma will oftentimes develop mental illness, which comes with its own set of symptoms as well. So what can we do when something like the trauma is taking over our minds? Simply put, we change our minds.

“We change our minds by putting feelings into words. Doing this develops important neural networks in the brain that help to integrate trauma. Understanding our feelings, tolerating our feelings, and being able to communicate them with significant people in our lives is often a culmination of all the steps of healing.” — Kim Barthel from ‘Conversations with a Rattlesnake’

Barthel and Theo Fleury explore this topic in detail in Chapter three of ‘Conversations with a Rattlesnake’Healing Conversations, where Theo explains how these practices have helped him. If you want to explore the concepts in their book further, you can now access over three hours of videos of Kim and Theo delving deeper into their book and trauma healing in general. Learn more here.

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