The word trauma has been a mental health buzzword catching a lot attention lately. But how do you know if you are experiencing traumatic symptoms? And when is it time to seek help from a professional mental health provider? These are two great questions!
You have an initial response that protects you from danger. These responses are totally healthy and keep you safe. For example, (I usually give this example to my students at the schools I work at so they can understand it.) Let's say you go camping and you are cooking some yummy s'mores on an open fire. The smell of the s'mores have reached a nearby hungry bear who is enticed to come to your camp site for the sweet smelling snack. Upon seeing this bear (who btw doesn't have a red t- shirt and a pot of honey in his hand and rambles sayings like "oh bother.") you feel frightened. This bear seems to not be on the friendly side and is HANGRY. Your heart begins to race. Beads of sweat trickle down your face. Your body trembles. At this point, your brain tells you to do 1 of 4 things: fight, flight, freeze or fawn. In the moment you can run off from the bear, you can completely freeze or play dead, attempt to fight this bear, or maybe throw some s'mores and do a funny dance to please the bear so it would not hurt you (It is so interesting to hear the responses from these middle school and high school students! But everyone's reaction is different).
These reactions translate in your everyday life (not just with bears!) but when you have a test in school, presentation at work, or maybe when you have an important life event you typically are going to feel some type of anxiety or stress. So let's go back to our example. Let's say the bear comes near you and growls with an attempt to bite you but the park ranger comes to the rescue. Whew! Everything is ok now. You are no longer in a life threatening situation. However, you see an old familiar show with that goofy bear with the red shirt holding his honey pot and he has you feeling that the hangry bear from the campsite is still around. In other words you become "triggered" (another mental health buzzword I will discuss in an upcoming blog post). You have nightmares about the bear. You become hyper vigilant and you watch your back where ever you go thinking the bear is lurking around. Thoughts of the bear pop into your mind throughout the day. You may even have blocked some parts of what happened that night at the campsite, you may not want to go out or even eat s'mores anymore. This is an extreme example but my point is to show you that now it's interfering with your life to the point you cannot function as you once did prior to the camping trip. At this point, your body has identified the situation with the bear as a traumatic event and you are having trauma symptoms.
So when do you seek help from a mental health professional?
If there was an event in your life that has you stuck and you feel like you are reliving that terrible moment over again everyday then it's time to reach out. If this terrible event or series of events has caused you disruption in your life where you cannot function then it's time to reach out. If your behaviors are causing disruption and discord in your relationships, work, school, or faith then it's time to reach out. Don't feel shame about reaching out either because there are trained and qualified mental health professionals waiting to help and give you the skills to get you through it. Because you can.
So what is your bear?
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