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What is Trauma?

Trauma is a distressing experience that can impact us emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Because everyone is different, potentially traumatic situations affect everyone differently. That is why it is important to respect each person’s experience.

How Trauma Happens

Trauma can happen when a person is involved in a situation where they believe that they (or someone else) might get seriously hurt or die. Trauma can also happen when a person hears about traumatic events from others.

During this time, you might feel stressed, scared, or numb. For example, someone who sees violence between their parents, is the victim of physical or emotional abuse, or who experiences a natural disaster, may feel out of control, frightened, and worry about being seriously hurt or dying. These experiences can all result in trauma.

Trauma can also be passed down from one generation to the next. As we learn Indigenous history, we learn that our ancestors experienced extensive trauma. Our genes carry the memories of our relatives, and these intergenerational and historical traumas may impact us in physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual ways.

Fortunately, resilience is also passed down from one generation to the next, and there are many ways we can call upon our strengths as Indigenous people to heal. But before we can talk about the specifics of healing from trauma, it is helpful to understand the common reactions people have to experiencing trauma.

Common Reactions to Trauma

A trauma reaction is our body’s way of helping us survive. When our brain perceives a situation as threatening, it will trigger our body to respond and try to save us. These reactions to trauma are often not under our control. Common reactions to trauma include:

Fight or flight. During this kind of trauma reaction, we may feel like our energy is being turned uncomfortably up. Our heart might race, our breathing might increase, our stomach might feel upset, and we might feel shaky– all things that could help us fight or run away from danger.

Freeze or collapse. During this kind of trauma reaction, our brain recognizes that we can’t fight or run away. Just like an opossum playing dead, your brain may call on your nervous system to turn your energy down. Our breathing and heart rate might slow. We might feel numb, sluggish, or paralyzed. We might even faint, not be able to move, or feel separated from our body.

Fawn. During this kind of trauma reaction, we may try to be people-pleasing to calm conflict and feel safe. We may try to appease the threat so it will be less likely to cause ourselves or others harm.

Other trauma reactions than the ones listed above can happen too. For example, those of us who have experienced trauma because our parent or caregiver made us feel unsafe when we were young, may have trouble connecting with others, balancing our emotions, concentrating, and sleeping. We may also experience different unexplainable aches and pains, like headaches and stomach pain. Additionally, we may feel bad about ourselves and who we are as people. We may also engage in risk behaviors that might make us feel good for a short time but may result in hurt in the long term.

Recovering From Trauma is Possible

Fortunately, we carry the memories and resilience of our relatives, and there are many ways we can call upon our strengths as Indigenous people to heal.

Healing can come in many different forms. For many people recovering from trauma involves:

Some begin their journey to healing by talking with trusted adult- like Elders, peers, or a behavioral health provider. Others may find healing through looking into themselves thru journaling, creating art, traditional medicine, or prayer.

Each person’s journey to healing is different, so what works for one person may not work for another. The important thing to remember is to keep trying. We are each unique, resilient, and capable.

To learn more details about healing from trauma, read Healing From Trauma.

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