Through life we all experience trauma, and each of us is shaped by the things we experience – but what happens when we are faced with significant trauma, and find it impossible to move past it? How does it shape our future choices, our relationships, and can it ever really leave us?
What is PTSD?
PTSD means Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This means that experiencing a very traumatic event – and anything you find traumatic counts – leaves you with life altering stress and anxiety.
This isn’t just ‘being anxious’ and it isn’t just ‘having some bad memories’ – it’s far more significant. PTSD actually alters the brain, physically. There are marked and well known physical differences in areas of the brain which process memories, anxiety and emotional stimuli and responses.
Symptoms of PTSD include a high level of stress or anxiety – again, a physical change – with higher levels of cortisone, which can lead to heart problems, among other issues. Other symptoms are flashbacks, night terrors and audio or visual illusions. Any trigger which sparks a trauma response takes the sufferer straight back to the initial trauma event, reliving and re-traumatising. The brain cannot differentiate between the traumatic event and the trigger, so the physical and emotional response is the same.
Complex PTSD – or CPTSD – is when someone has suffered multiple traumatic events, and is more challenging to live with and to treat, as those who suffer struggle to differentiate between trauma and triggers, and to maintain emotional balance or form healthy relationships and routines.
What is Trauma Bonding?
Trauma bonding is a very complex issue – and is something we most commonly see in victims of abuse. Any emotional bond is influenced by kindness and intimacy. These become unhealthy, trauma bonds when that same source of intimacy is the person who abuses you.
Most abusive relationships – whether they are between romantic couples, children and their abusive caregivers, Cult leaders and their followers or even kidnappers and their victims – tend to follow the same patterns.
Initially there is intense attention, affection and interest – love bombing – where the abuser, or person with the most power in the dynamic, showers their victim with overwhelming attention, and makes them feel special.
When the victim is feeling happy, vulnerable and adoring, seeing their abuser in a wonderful, loving light, the painful treatment begins. It could be a withdrawal and rejection, a physical attack, a verbal assault. The abuse itself takes many forms – but the pattern is the same. This is a shock, and incredibly painful for the victim, but it’s often brief – and the abuser quickly says something like ‘look what you made me do’ and is very apologetic. The love bombing re-starts, and affection – usually extreme affection – makes the victim feel secure again.
This cycle repeats – and a trauma bond is formed where the abuser is the person most capable of hurting you, be it physically or psychological, but they are also the person you most desperately want and need comfort from, and who any scrap of kindness from has the greatest impact.
This makes it very difficult to leave abusive relationships or situations, or to break that cycle and avoid repeating the pattern in new relationships (be it friendships, romantic relationships or even employment) because the familiarity makes it feel secure, even when it is incredibly painful.
Over time the bad days outweigh the good ones, but the victim – the person with the trauma bond – can’t leave because they still believe that if they can just love someone right, if they can just stop making mistakes, or upsetting their abuser, or stepping out of line, it will be as wonderful as it was in the beginning. They are chasing the reward of attention and love bombing, and will excuse and allow an enormous amount of cruelty to chase that feeling.
All of this is shaped by biological responses and the physical makeup of our brains, and as with PTSD it can literally alter the development of your brain – as well as forming the behaviours you exhibit.
Those who have never experienced it question why someone stays in an abusive relationship, but it’s an incredibly difficult thing to break, and to truly move away from and avoid repeating.
In that process, one of the most powerful therapeutic devices taught by psychotherapists and counsellors is grounding.
What is Grounding?
Grounding is when someone who is experiencing anxiety, fear, panic or heightened senses can reduce their stimulus and calm their body and mind. Some think specifically of just ‘calming down’ and focus on the exact moment and location that you are in – others link it to nature, and the individual connects to the physical world by taking off their shoes and standing on grass, or similar.
There are many different techniques, and I will include some links below to explore more, but the method I often teach first is the ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1’ technique, shown below.
This method distracts your thoughts from the traumatic event, the flashbacks or the worries which have heightened your body and mind, and re-focusses those energies on the immediate here and now of where you are and what you can sense.
This allows you to leave the trauma memory, and to re-enter your body right now, right here, focussed on your senses. This allows you to calm your racing thoughts and gain control over your emotional and physical being.
This kind of grounding is simple, powerful and effective, and can help you to divert or avoid panic attacks, to maintain equilibrium and avoid anger or aggression, and gives you time and opportunity to focus on where you are and what you need right now.
If you are struggling with any of the issues I’ve discussed in this article, and are looking for someone to speak to, to process and overcome your own traumatic events, you can contact me through this website, through Facebook, LinkedIn or email on firstname.lastname@example.org, or call me on 07849 037095 – you can also message or call via WhatsApp on the same number, and I offer video sessions for those who are still unable to meet in person. I can help – you don’t have to struggle alone, and our work together is completely confidential.