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How to understand trauma: the first thing to know is that we will all experience it at some stage

‘It’s really about becoming aware of what it is in ourselves. It’s only when we become aware of it that we are able to deal with it’

There are some misconceptions about trauma. One is that it only happens to other people. The other is that it only comes from particular experiences, like having lived in a war zone or experienced abuse, says Heidi Jackson.

“We all, at some stage in our lives, experience trauma,” says Jackson, a member of faculty of the Centre for Mind-Body Medicine. Its mission is to help people develop tools to heal trauma.

“You may have experienced trauma as a child as a result of something like poverty, childhood illness or neglect. You may have experienced it later on in life through work or divorce. You may experience trauma much later in life through the loss of loved ones, the frailty of getting old or your own impending death,” says Jackson.

“Trauma is part of life. It’s not just something other people have and there are different severities of it.”


You can’t compare different traumas. Whether something is experienced as being traumatic or not is very individual. “It’s really about becoming aware of what it is in ourselves. It’s only when we become aware of it that we are able to deal with it,” says Jackson.

How can trauma manifest?

The experience of a trauma can lead to many feelings. “The signs can be feeling anxious without knowing why, we can have panic attacks, anger, fear, irritability, or we can become obsessive about things,” says Jackson.

Some people can have feelings of dissociation – that’s a freeze response where they become detached, are unable to feel, or they feel fatigue, lethargy or apathy, says Jackson.

What’s going on?

Being able to respond when we feel threatened is what has kept our species alive. Having trauma that we haven’t processed, however, can leave us in a state of chronic stress. We can get stuck in that state and become hyper-vigilant all the time, says Jackson.

“If we have been traumatised, or we are highly stressed, we might be triggered about something that happened 20 years ago by something tiny,” she says.

“We can hold on to the trauma, the memories, the stress and something much later, can trigger us and we can get into that fight-or-flight stress response.”

You’re not alone

Knowing that to experience trauma is human, can help us to feel less alone, says Jackson. “How we react to trauma is all normal and human. Physiologically, trauma affects us in the same ways in that we are either going into that stress response or going into that freeze response,” she says. It can help to realise that we are not alone in how we are responding.


If you are experiencing chronic stress, shaking and moving the body is one way to achieve a feeling of relaxation, says Jackson. “You can do five or six minutes of nothing more than physically moving and shaking up your body. There is no right or wrong way to do it. Then pause for a minute, become aware of how you are feeling and then put some music on and move your body to the music,” says Jackson. “The more you do it, the less self-conscious you will become and the more you can release,” she says.

“Your body might feel tight, but also emotionally and psychologically, you are shaking things up.”

Belly breathing

Breathing differently can help your body feel more relaxed. “Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth, repeating the phrases ‘soft’ as you breathe in and ‘belly’ as you breathe out,” says Jackson. Do it for five minutes morning and evening. “By affecting the vagus nerve, we then stop the amygdala which activates the fight-or-flight response. It’s also helping us to bring down our blood pressure and heart rate.”

Take care

Take some time every day to take care of yourself, says Jackson. Going for a walk in nature, doing a bit of yoga and tuning into what’s going on for you can all help with chronic stress.

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about homes and property, lifestyle, and personal finance