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What is trauma? And what does it mean to be traumatized?

The term traumatic stress was coined by French psychologist Pierre Janet in 1889 after publishing the first scientific account of this disorder, claiming that, “trauma survivors are prone to continue the action, or rather the (futile) attempt at action, which began when the thing happened.”

When we talk about stress, we recognize that all humans experience stress, however, our reactions to stress often determine how it will affect us. Eustress is known as good stress, distress is the not-so-good stress, and traumatic stress, the worst. Using the example of overtime pay in the wildland world, most wildland firefighters rely on overtime to compensate their paychecks. The eustress of earning more money; the distress of being away from our homes and loved ones; and the traumatic stress of becoming burned out, ill, injured or losing our most precious relationships – all in the name of OT!

It’s well known that all stress includes some kind of physiological expression in the body – everything from sweaty palms, racing heart, tension, and shortened breath to heartbreak. Perhaps you can think of a time that you felt especially stressed and physical sensations were present. There may even be a time that you were so frightened you were frozen in fear, immobilized and unable to move. These are all normal reactions to abnormal circumstances – exactly what our bodies and primal brains are supposed to do to keep us safe and out of harm’s way.

But what happens when the system goes awry, when this traumatic stress becomes cumulative, ongoing, without resolve? I liken it to playing Jenga blocks; we start by building a secure block foundation, slowly and mindfully building the stack, one-by-one, until completed. It looks solid and stable, right? Imagine these same Jenga blocks as the foundation of our lives. We build our foundation slowly, but then with every stressor, with every trauma and every loss, one of the blocks gets removed. You continue building, and slowly, blocks are removed, yet the stack still stands. You get to a point where the stack seems pretty secure and stable. However, you didn’t realize blocks were slowly being taken away, without knowing which one would be the catalyst, the crisis, the point at which all the blocks come tumbling down.

A common definition of trauma is, “an event where the individual feels that they are powerless to control the circumstances or event; the circumstances/event is either frightening and/or perceived as a moral injury; and the circumstances/event changes the individual’s beliefs about themselves, the world and their interactions in the world.”

Trauma falls into two categories: environmental trauma includes natural disasters (such as entrapments and burn overs), car accidents, and medical procedures; and interpersonal trauma, which occurs in the course of a relationship, sexual abuse, domestic violence, religious abuse, and trauma that occurs in childhood, such as neglect, abandonment and abuse. These traumas have a clear and concise way of impacting and injuring our autonomic nervous systems, especially when cumulative, relational and on-going.

The body is a miraculous machine, and everything that happens to us is perfectly orchestrated. Let’s look at how our brain operates when stressed or traumatized, using wildland firefighting as an example. We get the dispatch and our autonomic nervous system goes into high alert. Our brain’s alarm system is activated, sometimes referred to as amygdala hijack, causing a cascade of stress hormones, along with slowing down our cognitive brain, or pre-frontal cortex. This cascade of stress hormones allows the reflexes to fight or flee, pumping much needed energy to our muscles, allowing us to prepare for a wildfire. Under normal circumstances, stress hormones will decrease back to normal once the stress has passed. However, with the stress of wildland fire, these stress hormones take much longer to subside, spiking quickly and disproportionately in response to stressful stimuli. The constant and cumulative cascade of these hormones can wreak havoc to our health and well-being, physically, mentally, emotionally, relationally and spiritually.

Using our wildland fire scenario, we can understand how our ANS and brains react, when the stress of simply being dispatched causes the hormone waterfall that continues throughout the assignment. Our bodies are now prepared for fighting or fleeing, not only pumping adrenaline and cortisol through our systems, but protecting us through what is known as armoring, which is another brilliant protection mechanism keeping our bodies safe from attack. How often, while on a fire, do you notice your upper chest, upper back, shoulders and neck become tense or tight?

I find it ludicrous that wildland folks are still provided with only two days of R&R, thinking that this will give them time to relax and recover! What we know about traumatic stress is that once the system has been activated, it takes our stress hormones up to 72 hours just to begin to subside. That’s why we often feel like we are just beginning to settle down just as R&R is over. Think about the harm this does to our bodies when we don’t even allow ourselves the time it takes to truly recover, especially with fire season now 24/7/365.

Another huge component is the effect of the stresshormone cascade in our bodies, because these traumatic and stressful events create a fire storm in our fascia, muscles, connective tissue, bones, organs and cells, especially when not addressed in a healthy way. It is known that all traumatic stress manifests physiologically or somatically, in the body. It’s no wonder that so many of us deal with ongoing chronic pain and illness long after fire season subsides. It’s also important to understand why some wildland firefighters develop post-traumatic stress, while some don’t. People who experienced developmental trauma as a child, or adverse childhood experiences, are 20 times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress or complex post-traumatic stress.

My wish is that this information helps you begin to understand the complexities of traumatic stress, including grief while helping you to begin to connect the dots in your own wildland world. I would have given anything to have had this kind of knowledge and wisdom going into my Jenga blocks crumbling. And, please know, despite the chaos that accompanies post-traumatic stress, there is always a healing path forward; it’s called posttraumatic growth. More on that in future articles.

Bequi Livingston was the first woman recruited by the New Mexico-based Smokey Bear Hotshots for its elite wildland firefighting crew. She was the Regional Fire Operations Health and Safety Specialist for the U.S. Forest Service in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Contact her at [email protected].