What is Trauma?

We are surrounded by trauma narratives everyday through social media, news, and even through family and friends. The National Council for Behavioral Health states that “70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives.” This is a high number, but you may be asking yourself, “What is trauma?” Trauma is defined as a disturbing or distressing event or experience. Everyone interprets trauma in a different way depending on beliefs, past experiences, morals, values and level of tolerance for distress. What may be a traumatic experience or event for you may not be a trauma for someone else. The human experience can include small traumas (those experiences that are not directly life threatening) such as divorce, financial worries, loss of a pet or relationship, loss of a loved one, or interpersonal dilemma and big traumas (those events or experiences that are life threatening) such as domestic violence, sexual assault, combat, natural disasters, car accident, etc. Both small and big traumas can be a one time event or it could be a repeated experience.

The Brain’s Response

When someone has lived through a big trauma(s) or repeated small traumas, the brain can have a hard time “digesting” these events or experiences and start having responses that were not present before. We can compare the brain to our digestive system. If I decided to eat a cheeseburger, pizza, fries, tacos, ice cream, cake and pie within one day, my stomach is going to have a hard time digesting these heavy foods. My digestive system may start responding with stomach pain, nausea, upset stomach, acid reflux, constipation, extreme bowel movements, grogginess or just an overall feeling of heaviness in my body. Similarly, when the brain has lived through heavy events or experiences, it cannot process these memories easily. This is when people start having responses to trauma that include anxiety, hopelessness, depression, fatigue, irritability, nightmares, sleeping problems, appetite changes, flashbacks, feelings of fear, panic attacks, feelings of worthlessness, hallucinations, drug/alcohol use or abuse, memory problems, feelings of worthlessness, cutting/self-harm, worrying, feelings of emptiness, racing thoughts, distractibility, disorientation, loneliness, feeling numb or disconnected, or suicidal ideation.

Suicidality as a Trauma Response

Trauma responses such as the ones listed above can become unmanageable and cause a sense of lack of control over one’s life. These responses can become overwhelming, but our brain is so smart and resourceful that it starts looking for immediate solutions to end the pain, hurt or suffering that is being experienced as a result of trauma. One of these immediate solutions your brain may turn to is suicidal ideation. Suicidal ideation is the thought of wanting your life to end or wanting to kill yourself. Suicidal ideation can take two different forms, passive and active. Passive suicidal ideation is when you have thoughts of wanting your life to end, but not having a plan or intent. Active suicidal ideation is wanting your life to end, having a plan and an intent to carry out that plan. Suicidal ideation can also become a maladaptive coping skill, which means that it’s an unhealthy way of coping with hard emotions, symptoms or situations. Therefore, creating a safety plan can help redirect.

How To Safety Plan

Safety planning can help redirect and prevent passive suicidal ideation becoming active suicidal ideation. Safety planning is a tool that is free and only requires identification of warning signs and protective factors. This safety plan can be more effective if you write it down in your phone or paper where it can be easily accessed.

Identify warning signs of suicidal ideation:

  • Thoughts:
  • I don’t want to wake up today
  • I’m a burden to my family and friends
  • Why am I alive?
  • What’s the point of going on?
  • Mood:
  • Hopeless
  • Helpless
  • Lonely
  • Depressed, anxious, irritable
  • Self-hatred
  • Drastic mood swings
  • Behavior:
  • Isolating from others
  • Extreme risk taking
  • Beginning to make a plan of how you would end your life
  • Increased drug or alcohol use
  • Talking about not being present in the future
  • Planning on who you would give your possessions to

Identifying 3-5 people I can ask for help:

  • Friends or a best friend
  • Parents
  • Siblings
  • Cousins
  • Aunts/Uncles
  • Coworkers

Identify 3-5 healthy coping skills you enjoy:

  • Going for a walk
  • Exercise
  • Watching a movie
  • Reading
  • Going out to eat
  • Bathing
  • Playing a game
  • Coloring
  • Puzzle
  • Social media
  • Changing my environment (going to a park, mall, store)

Identify important emergency 24-hour crisis lines:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800.273.8255
  • Crisis Text Line: 741741
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
  • Genesis Emergency Hotline: 214.946.HELP (4357)
  • Metrocare Crisis Line: 1.866.260.8000
  • 911

Written by Julieth Arellano, bilingual women’s and children’s therapist at Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support.