What happens to us when we experience trauma? Bhatia Psychology Group’s Jeff Duke, MSW, RSW, explains trauma and how it impacts our mental health.

“Trauma simply is any event that a person goes through that they’re unable to emotionally and mentally process because there’s too much distress at the time the event happens. It can be as simple as failing a test, going through a divorce, losing a job, going through a major car accident, or going through some form of assault. All of these things, if you’re unable to work through what the distress is at the time, the distress lingers inside you. And I like to give you a visual image of how this works.

…I have these two pens, and I want you to imagine that this is a person, and at the moment they go through a trauma, the event is too much for them to deal with. There’s too much distress. There’s too many thoughts going through their head for them to be able to manage what’s happening in the moment, and it’s sufficiently threatening that they feel like they have to be strong, and they feel like they have to focus on just getting through the event.

So what they do is, they actually split their consciousness. So the part of them that focuses on being strong is the part where they put all their focus, and because they put all their focus there, they’re able to get through the event. They focus on: ‘I’m going to be strong, I’m going to get through this, I’m going to survive, I’m going to make it through the other day, and I’m going to be happy, I’m going to be strong again. Everything’s going to be great.’

What you notice, what happened to the pen I’ve got here on the left. It’s staying exactly where it was when the trauma happened. The left pen holds all of the feelings of, ‘Oh my god, that’s the worst thing that ever happened to me.’ All the thoughts of, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to handle this.’ All of those things that the person felt and thought that they just weren’t able to process at the time.

So what happens is, the pen now on the right keeps going forward, and that’s where they’ve kept their focus. And they keep going through days, weeks, months, having separated their consciousness like this. And eventually, what will happen is, something’s going to happen in their present moment that’s going to remind them of something that happened in the trauma, and that’s a trigger. And at that moment, all of the thoughts and feelings in the left-hand pen, the part that’s been split off and gone unconscious, wakes up and it almost sends a sensation of thought of feeling to the right hand pen that reminding the consciousness on the right hand side, what happened.

And because it comes out of the blue, the person is like, ‘What’s this? Why is this

happening to me? That was three months ago. This doesn’t make sense. I should be over this by now.’ But because there hasn’t been an opportunity to integrate what happened yet, the left hand pen is now sending these Easter eggs to try and wake the right hand pen up, that this hasn’t been resolved yet. And the main reason this is happening is to try and bring the right hand pen, bring these two pens back together, so that the person can function in a whole, and more integrated way.

And that essentially is what trauma is, and why people have flashbacks, why people have sudden feelings of reminders of what happened out of the blue. And as much as it’s distressing and it’s awful for a person to go through, it’s all designed to help a person bring their consciousness back into an integrative state.”

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