Frequently spoken about and less frequently understood, emotional trauma can be painful and long lasting. Rev. Wolfe addresses some of the misnomers and myths about trauma while discussing pathways toward building resiliency
by Melanie Taussig
Reverend Marilyn Wolfe is resolute in the fact that emotional trauma is complex. Rev. Wolfe, a Clinical Social Worker at a community-counseling clinic in Denver is herself a trauma survivor. She has worked with long-term trauma survivors for decades and has a unique lens given both personal and professional experience with trauma. Rev. Wolfe and I met at her office in Denver for a candid conversation about trauma, which is widespread in people across the globe.
Rev. Wolfe started her career as an educator in East Los Angeles. Since then, she has worked as a pastor and more recently as a clinical therapist. Over the course of her career, Rev. Wolfe has worked with both children and adults who have endured extensive abuse and horrific trauma. As a therapist, trauma is one of Rev. Wolfe’s areas of specialty.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines a traumatic event as “a shocking, scary, or dangerous experience that affects someone emotionally.” Rev. Wolfe explains that each individual has a unique reaction to a traumatic event and the impact of trauma can manifest differently depending on the individual. “Trauma occurs when a situation that is happening is so overwhelming a person feels as though they can’t get to safety”. Trauma can be a one-time incident or it can be ongoing. At its most severe, the effects of trauma can be invasive and affect everyday life and functioning. Many people who experience a traumatic event do not always recognize it to be that of trauma. This can be challenging when treating trauma.
The following are (some) circumstances that can lead to trauma:
- Abuse (physical, sexual, verbal)
- Domestic violence
- Living in a crime-ridden neighborhood
- Medical Surgeries
- Natural disasters
- War zones
- Being bullied
- Death of a loved one
- Moral injury [Perpetrating or failing to prevent an act that is in conflict to one’s moral compass]
When an individual experiences a traumatic event, it usually results with the body going into “survival mode.” When traumatized, the body reacts without warning, often going into “fight or flight” mode. This is when the body makes the split-second decision to either confront the threat (fight) or flee from it (flight). There is also the possibility that in the midst of a stressful or threatening situation, a person does not know what to do or how to react and “freezes” in the moment. However the body reacts, Rev. Wolfe says that is often beyond conscious control, “Our body just makes that choice, our mind doesn’t.” According to Rev. Wolfe, people can get stuck and become paralyzed following a traumatic situation. Being re-exposed to something associated with the original traumatic event including similar sounds, smells, or memories can trigger or “re-up” the trauma.
Rev. Wolfe says the reactions to traumatic events differ depending on the person but that a common shared experience for many is not understanding their body’s own reaction to the incident that occurred. “People will ask, ‘why can’t I be normal?’” says Rev. Wolfe, indicating they know something is wrong but don’t know what to do about it. To complicate matters, trauma is often accompanied by a sense of shame. “People feel this sense that ‘I didn’t protect myself and have feelings of self-blame” says Rev. Wolfe. This can create a great deal of internal conflict, which can lead to feelings of anger, rage and/or detachment. Rev. Wolfe explains that unresolved trauma can manifest with symptoms that look very similar to symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). If an individual is diagnosed with ADHD she will always ask about past trauma as trauma can create attention deficits due to the brain being largely unregulated.
Following exposure to a traumatic event, residual trauma can occur. Residual effects can be extremely challenging and can manifest as intense anxiety, fear, sadness, physical pain, flashbacks, irritability and guilt. When when people hear the word “trauma,” there is often an association to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Rev. Wolfe indicates that an individual does not have to be diagnosed with PTSD to experience the impacts of trauma. She, in fact, has worked with many clients who do not meet criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD yet all have a background of severe trauma. In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, one must meet certain criteria and all of the symptoms need to be occurring simultaneously.
Trauma is often classified into two different categories, “Big T Trauma” and “Little T trauma.” “Big T trauma” is generally the result of trauma involving exposure to a large-scale event such as a natural disaster or a mass shooting. On the other hand, “small T trauma” would be prompted by smaller scale events such as being bullied, relationship troubles, or financial concerns. Rev. Wolfe sees it all as trauma and she is guided by what she hears from clients. “I would never call something little-T trauma,” indicating that just because something was not the result of a large-scale event, does not mean the trauma doesn’t have a large impact. She does not want anybody to feel as though their issues are being minimized based on the words “big” and “little”.
Just as people react differently, people also cope differently with the effects of trauma. Some people may use drugs or alcohol to minimize the impact. Others may detach and “check out” from their feelings altogether. Detachment can impact relationships, self-esteem, and productivity. When an individual detaches from his or her internal thoughts, Rev. Wolfe speaks about the importance of “coming back into your body.” She explains that this is about connecting cognitive thoughts to what the body is feeling. Rev. Wolfe says that physical acts such as pushing ones feet into the ground, engaging in breathing rituals, or pushing oneself against a wall can all help to achieve the physical sensation of connecting the mind with the body. In addition, maintaining focus on a positive thought or helpful mantra can be of great assistance in transcending through a difficult moment. Simple things such as attending a 12-step meeting, having coffee with a friend, or watching a movie can also help by redirecting focus during those challenging moments.
Compassion & understanding from others
Rev. Wolfe explains that one of the most difficult aspects of dealing with trauma is that often the brain cannot distinguish between “almost” and “actual.” Therefore, if a person almost got into a car accident or almost died in a war zone, the brain does not necessarily register that [the awful incident] did not occur. Consequently, although that the individual is safe and no longer in danger, the fear and shock of what could have happened results in trauma. This can be particularly difficult for other people to understand; to someone else everything appears fine because nothing calamitous occurred but that does not equate to the absence of trauma. Rev. Wolfe indicates that it is important to remember that not all scars are physical and being exposed to a stressful event can have an indelible emotional impact on an individual.
Validation is critical when expressing compassion for someone who has been subjected to trauma. Rev. Wolfe indicates that when a person who has trauma feels understood and hears the message, ‘I’m not crazy’ from others it be of great comfort. She stresses the importance of acknowledgement, which can be a consolation to a trauma survivor. For those who wish to provide support to a person who appears to be struggling, Rev. Wolfe suggests withholding judgment and asking [that person] “is it okay if I give you some information? [regarding your observation]” Being granted permission to provide feedback allows an individual to feel empowered and to be part of a dialogue, rather than on the other end of what may feel like a critical lecture.
Community support & belonging
Rev. Wolfe talks about the immense benefits of community as an antigen for trauma. “Having a sense of belonging can be very important in the [trauma] healing process,” she says. Faith can also play a monumental role in trauma recovery. “Faith helps us feel connected and can provide community. For someone to feel as though they are not alone can build resiliency in a person who is struggling.” When an individual is socially connected and knows someone else may understand what he or she is going through, it can normalize that experience.
Trauma can be very lonely. Withholding emotions because it feels unsafe to talk to anybody else can be an extremely isolating experience. Rev. Wolfe refers to this as the “island of isolation,” a term coined by a former colleague many years ago. She explains that isolation can hinder progress. Conversely, it is human connection that aids in people improving. “Social connection can be very healing,” says Rev. Wolfe. She recommends getting involved in a cause that feels meaningful, “purpose and encouraged participation in society can help a person become resilient.”
Treating trauma while in search of hope & resiliency
Unfortunately healing trauma does not have a simple solution. What is beneficial for one person to work through their trauma may be very different for the next. Rev. Wolfe says that the quest is not for perfection, “You don’t have to get everything fixed, hope is not being fixed.” Rev. Wolfe has seen medication be extremely beneficial in some instances but she stresses that if an individual is medicated, it is important that prescriber be trauma informed in their treatment approach. She also has seen some of her patients benefit greatly from utilizing mental health apps as supplemental support. Rev. Wolfe speaks of different interventions and treatment options that are available to treat trauma including the following:
Rev. Wolfe recognizes the challenges that come with taking those initial steps to seeking treatment. She recommends individuals call their insurance company or ask an entrusted person for a referral to a provider who specializes in trauma.
When insurance is a barrier or if an individual does not have medical coverage, Rev. Wolfe advises calling the crisis hotline in the local area in order to be directed to resources that can offer assistance. If an individual is struggling and a situation becomes severe Rev. Wolfe recommends calling 911 or seeking emergency care at the local hospital (for a list of resources, click here). “We need to start treating mental health crises like a heart attack,” says Rev. Wolfe. “If someone was having a heart attack and needed treatment immediately, you wouldn’t delay treatment based on if the person has insurance. We need to start thinking about mental health the same way.”
Rev. Wolfe acknowledges that experiencing hopelessness following a traumatic event is very typical but that feeling better is within reach. In her practice, she has seen countless clients prevail and overcome difficult trauma as she herself has also done. Well aware that the journey of trauma recovery can be an arduous one, Rev. Wolfe wants to impart a message of hope. She is clear that no matter who you are or what your trauma is, getting better and building resilience is possible. “To me,” Rev. Wolfe says, “the greatness of the human spirit is just waiting to be awakened.”
Reverend Marilyn Wolfe is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Denver, Colorado.
Reverend Marilyn Wolfe, Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Photo courtesy of Rev. Wolfe.