What is trauma to you? What do you understand by the term?
The dictionary gives us two definitions –
(a) severe emotional shock and pain caused by an extremely upsetting experience
(b) severe injury, usually caused by a violent attack or an accident.
Bodily trauma – could be a gunshot or stab wound, broken bones, bruising and lacerations. The impact of something hitting us with force and speed, or us colliding with something.
In emotional trauma – it is life which hits us. Events. Circumstances. Sometimes these events may also cause bodily trauma of course, but not always. They may be sudden, dramatic, life threatening, life changing events. Or more subtle, enduring difficulties.
I am learning. I have a basic understanding I think of how it works. I was taken by something Dr Stephen Porges said in a session I was listening to the other day – something along the lines of “Trauma is not an event, it is a response” It is not the explosion, the car accident, or the rape, which is the trauma, it is the way we are affected by it. Trauma is not the bullet – it is the damage it causes on its path through our body. The body breaks and bleeds, it cannot stay whole.
These major event-type traumas are understandable, recognisable to many. Though there are some, whose only encounters with trauma have been through the Post Traumatic Stress experienced by the military in war zones – who may not immediately accept that these experiences are comparable to other kinds of trauma. And in a sense they are right. Because no two traumas will be alike, because no two people are alike. How we respond to life and events, whether happy or sad, nurturing or traumatic, will depend on a million variables in our genetics, our biology, our upbringing, education and experiences. But a mother can experience PTSD after a difficult birth just as a soldier can after a wartime incident which sees them severely injured and losing squad mates.
The experiences are not the same. But part of the way the body responds to them, and why – can be understood on the same spectrum.
Most experiences which trigger a trauma response are those where we feel profoundly unsafe. In danger. Often our life is at risk, or we think it might be.
Similarly other kinds of trauma make us feel unsafe in more subtle ways. Rejected, unwanted, unworthy. Bullying, neglect, abuse – difficult and unhealthy relationships. At root we are primitive beings – and somewhere in us we have a sense that to survive we need to have the support and acceptance of our family and community, and if we are made to think that is in question, something in us feels genuinely that our survival is at risk, even if on the surface others might think the experience is relatively trivial or mild. Subtle emotional abuse or bullying might seem annoying, if admittedly unkind, to those looking from the outside – not realising the insidious nature, of ongoing, unrelenting cruelty which picks at your self esteem and questions your value as a human. These kind of complex and enduring difficulties can also lead us to a trauma response – and can be more embedded in our way of being, and complicated to treat. Sadly we know they can lead people to take their own lives out of desperation.
The traumas with a big T – are unmissable. We know they are happening. The question is how will they impact us. It is perfectly normal and reasonable to be shaken up and impacted by such events, for it to affect our sleep, our mood, to preoccupy our thoughts. After all – we nearly died, or some major harm may have come to us (or we witnessed something horrific, which made us empathically respond and imagine ourselves in the crisis). Our brain, with its one job, to keep us alive – has to take stock, and reflect – make sure there is nothing it could have done differently to avoid it happening again. But usually, if all is well, we would work through that and eventually put it in its place – file under, horrific accident, or unforseen event – not, “something that might happen every day”. Around a month I think is the benchmark for when these thoughts and feelings should subside.
Sometimes it takes longer. Sometimes we might need some help to process what we have experienced.
With Post Traumatic Stress the effects are different, may take time to come on, and may include flashbacks or re-living the traumatic situation in some way – our body taking us back to the physical and emotional sensations of the time. We may definitely need some specialist help to break these cycles and be able to move forward out of the trauma. EMDR Therapy is known to be particularly effective in helping people through these experiences.
There is no judgement or shame in finding yourself experiencing PTSD, or heightened anxieties as a result of events – even if someone who went through it with you has not been affected at all. There are, as I said, lots of variables. Aspects of ourselves and our genetic experience we know nothing about – other traumas we have gone through earlier in our lives, even if we have no conscious memory of them.
Everything we go though has an impact. Significant emotional difficulties, complex or unsupportive relationships, over time can lead to us feeling unsafe all the time. To feeling unworthy, like we have to do something to earn love and respect. To feeling stupid for ever thinking anyone might care for us. This trauma can shape how we act and interact with others, shape our way of being, our temperament, how we treat ourselves, whether we can regulate our emotions, trust, or get close to others. It can be at the root of many of our problems and difficulties.
In truth I doubt any of us gets through life without experiencing events which could lead to trauma. Some of us will be lucky in that our particular combination of background and experiences keeps us immune from too much negative effect. But most of us will carry some of it through life.
The question is – when does it become too heavy? And how do we set it down?
I am still learning. I am constantly unpicking the experiences I have had that I know now have contributed to my mental health difficulties, my problems with confidence and self esteem. My self sabotaging nature in relationships. But I’m also coming to realise how much they are probably at the root of my ongoing issues with obesity, problem drinking, and general lack of rigourous self care.