We are a traumatized society. I don’t mean to sound dramatic—but it’s the truth.
As a trained trauma therapist, I have come to realize that there is no human being that escapes trauma these days. Whether it’s “big T Trauma” or “little t trauma”, we all have something we’ve been impacted by. It’s impossible to escape it when our society is as traumatized as it is.
I’m not suggesting that we all meet the DSM-5 criteria to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but do I believe we all have feelings, thoughts and behaviors that stem from our traumatic experiences? Yes. And do I think that we are being triggered right and left as mothers these days? Yes.
If it isn’t “How am I going to feed my baby?” then it’s “How can I keep my children safe?” or “Will I be able to get the reproductive healthcare I need?” Mothers are in the throes of navigating trauma on a daily level. Psychologically, it’s impossible to try to plan in the midst of such uncertainty. Which is why viewing your motherhood through the lens of trauma might make you feel more validated.
Here's how trauma might impact your life, as well as how to cope with trauma when you experience it.
What is trauma?
Trauma describes the emotional response to a deeply disturbing event that impacts your feelings of safety and control in your life, leaving you feeling powerless.
It can be further broken into two categories: Big T trauma and little t trauma. Big T traumas are the larger life events people often associate with PTSD, such as war, domestic violence, car accidents or school shootings.
These events, regardless of if they happen to you directly, or to someone you know or you simply just hear of them, can have a profound effect on you.
Little “t” traumas are a series of less pronounced events that happen over time (bullying, harassment, non-life threatening injuries etc.). These traumatic experiences tend to be minimized by the person experiencing them and society, however the compounding effect can be emotionally devastating.
Either way, these events cause you distress that can ultimately impact your ability to cope or function in your day to day life.
Symptoms of trauma
While not everyone will react to trauma the same way, here are some common symptoms (note that this not an exhaustive list):
- Increased anxiety and fear
- Intrusive thoughts and nightmares
- Difficulty concentrating
- Shock and disbelief
- Avoiding certain situations, places and people
- Hypervigilance and restlessness
- Difficulty staying asleep
- Loss of appetite
How trauma might impact your life
Everyone will react to trauma differently based on certain predisposing factors, such as their past lived experiences, beliefs, values, distress tolerance levels and perceptions. That’s why some people who serve in the military and return after war are diagnosed with PTSD, while others are not.
Trauma can affect us emotionally, physically, psychologically— and even change our behaviors.
After experiencing trauma, your thoughts naturally shift to safety—and your behavior likely jumps to areas you can control. That’s a normal trauma response. When something happens to you—or you learn of a situation that turns your world upside down, it’s normal to feel out of control, and therefore your default is to desire more control.
How to manage a traumatic response
Know that it isn’t ever helpful (or healthy!) to compare your trauma to someone else’s, or to compare your coping abilities to someone else’s. We all are impacted differently by the same event and each cope uniquely, too.
Managing trauma in the short term
When we are in a state of acute trauma, it’s important to buckle down and recall Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If you feel like your or your family’s safety is at risk, there’s no way you can progress to the upper tiers of esteem and self-actualization.
It’s about getting back to baseline. I’m talking about just eating good food (or whatever you can stomach), drinking fluids and getting some restorative sleep. A traumatic experience can impact the brain similarly to a traumatic brain injury, so rest and rejuvenation is an important part of recovery.
Managing trauma in the long term
If a trauma makes us feel powerless and out of control, then the antidote is finding areas in your life you feel you can control. That’s a good place to start.
How you react is one place you certainly can gain control over (over time). This is the part where knowing your emotions, being able to name them for what they are, and then knowing what to do with them (in a healthy manner) is an important step. Remember, you are not your emotions; you are simply having the experience of them.
Telling yourself, “I notice I am feeling more anxious today,” and then getting curious as to the “why” can be a helpful strategy in better understanding how the trauma is affecting you. Take it one step further by normalizing your emotions too, like, “It makes sense that I would be feeling fearful today after reading some heartbreaking news last night.”
You can pull out whatever tools you have in your coping toolbox and use them when you are experiencing a trauma response too. Meditation, deep breathing, yoga, grounding exercises, journaling, crying or any other safe form of releasing your pent-up emotions are useful tools in helping you find your baseline again.
Remember that you’re not alone
Talking about your concerns, fears and thoughts with friends and family that share a similar perspective to you can feel validating and also less isolating in your experience. When you know that others are feeling the same, you might feel more empowered in your own response.
However, if your anxiety is becoming more unmanageable and it is disrupting your day-to-day functioning, I recommend you talk with a licensed mental health professional trained in trauma that can help you process your experience.
Just remember, while we all have experienced grief and trauma the last several months as mothers, we all have an opportunity to share in our community’s post-traumatic growth, too. We can be the agents of change needed to make us feel safe to mother again in a world where we currently feel so derailed. We can be the change. The trauma we have experienced can lead us to action for the good of all—and we can make a difference for future generations.