We frequently talk about being ‘stressed out’ or even ‘traumatized’ by our everyday experiences. But what distinguishes manageable ‘stress’ from something more damaging to our wellbeing and when are we mistaking being traumatized for stress?
Neither stress nor trauma can be objectively nor definitively categorized. There is not a discrete set of events or circumstances which relate to one or the other state of being. Being stressed or traumatized is, to some degree, a subjective experience. That said, there are ways in which the experiences can helpfully be distinguished from one another. Stress is a physical and emotional response to a real or perceived ‘threat’: in some circumstances, and for some people, stress can be a motivating force. For instance, many of us work most productively under the stress of a deadline, when we are fuelled by adrenaline and perhaps by the fear of the consequences of not reaching it. Repeated stressful experiences, however, can have damaging effects on our mental and physical health, producing the unpleasant sensation of life being out of control, and making relaxation and sleep difficult and producing a low-level feeling of being unwell. With good self-awareness and an ability to make changes and seek support from friends, family or employer, stress can be managed and reduced without the need for therapeutic interventions, though a counsellor might be able to help you to avoid the repetitive patterns of behaviour and thought which lead to stress.
An experience of trauma could also be said to be a physical and emotional response to a real or perceived threat. The difference between our response to stress and to trauma is one of degree. The distress which is experienced following a traumatic event, or events, might be recognised by the speed and frequency with which upset is triggered, the intensity of the upsetting sensations and the length of time it takes to recover from the triggered distress. Whilst we are ‘stressed’ we might be able to communicate our needs to others, to calm ourselves or be calmed. In a state of trauma, however, we might be the other hand might unable to coherently communicate the source of distress or to recover completely, if at all, from intense emotional and physical upset.
Broadly, two types of traumatic events can be identified: those which occur once, and which may last a short time, and those which are prolonged and repeated. A single event might be thought of as traumatic if it is, or is perceived as, dangerous; if it is emotionally and physically overwhelming; if it is sudden, and unexpected – for example, being a victim of a sexual attack, experiencing a traffic accident or witnessing a violent crime. Responses to such events might include vivid memories which appear intrusively and unbidden and which leave us in the same physical and emotional state as the original event. A traumatic experience may leave us fearful of repeated events, so we feel physically hyer-alert to threat when there is none, which is a symptom of anxiety. Prolonged and repeated traumatic events – like repeated abuse (emotional, physical, sexual), chronic illness, experience of warfare – can produce the same feelings and physical sensations as a single event, but the anticipation of repeated trauma and hyperarousal may be much more intense.
Because humans are good at protecting themselves psychologically from harmful experiences, we might ‘dissociate’ (detach) from the experience of traumatic events to the degree that we cannot recall them with any clarity or coherence. Memory of trauma is also affected by the way traumatic events are processed: trauma is ‘stored’ in the body rather than the brain, so we might feel the effects of trauma without remembering much about the event or events themselves.
Both single and repeated experiences of trauma can lead us to feel chronically unsafe, helpless and with a reduced capacity to act effectively in our own lives. Feelings of low self-worth, anxiety and depression are therefore common consequences. Unresolved trauma may have an impact on our bodies, and there is evidence that many illnesses have their source in the sufferer’s experience of trauma.
The inability to remember the source of traumatic distress or the feelings of shame and guilt which sometimes occur after traumatic experiences can make finding support for recovery difficult. How can you ask for help if you can’t remember what happened, or in some way feel responsible? Or perhaps the fear of talking about the traumatic experience is just too overwhelming, and the coping strategies you’ve acquired to work around the trauma seem a better alternative than stripping away your defences (even if they’re strategies which aren’t good for you, like drug and alcohol use).
A skilled counsellor will not judge, minimise or rush you into ‘facing up to’ a traumatic experience. There are strategies which can help you to separate the traumatic experience(s) from your perception of the present and future, and allow you to acknowledge and mourn the impact of trauma while not stopping you from living now and looking ahead with optimism instead of fear.