What is trauma?
Good question! A lot of people go to the furthest point they can imagine when they hear the word ‘trauma’. That would suppose that all my clients are survivors of a terrible natural disaster, or were badly abused as children, or have spent years as prisoners of war. All of those instances are certainly traumatic, and I am qualified to work with people who have been through such things. But trauma doesn’t have to be that severe or dramatic to be causing problems for people.
Trauma is the word for whenever your mind & emotions continue to be upset about something painful, upsetting, or scary that happened, OR that could have happened. Yep – trauma isn’t just about things that did happen, it’s also about the threat of something happening, and that’s actually a good thing, most of the time.
Wait – it can be good WHY?
The human ability to be scared about what could have happened helps, because it means that we don’t have to actually experience something to be wary of it. Think of all the things you haven’t done, haven’t even come close to doing, because you knew you’d hate the results! Every time you drive a car, you try NOT to run into other cars, not to crash into buildings, not to run people over (at least, I hope you do 🙂 ) Why don’t you? Because you don’t have to do any of those things to know that they could cause pain, disability, hospitals, insurance claims, and cars that don’t work anymore, just to name a few possible results.
You have the ability to understand the ‘what if’ – you don’t need to experience it all to know not to try it.
When you feel threatened, though, it can be as scary as if something really happened. The same part of your brain that’s upset over something happening is upset over knowing it could happen. That’s a good survival strategy, but it also makes a whole lot more things potentially traumatic.
So okay – you keep saying ‘trauma’ – give me examples of how this works.
When you experience something physically painful, emotionally painful or scary, or have a real fear that something is likely to happen that is painful or scary, it all goes to the same parts of the brain. As far as your mind is concerned, physical pain & emotional pain hurt the same amount, and a sincere threat is scary, too. In a perfectly healthy world, we have supportive people close to us, we have safe places to go, and we deal with the painful parts of life & the scary parts of life and we go on. The problem is, the world isn’t always perfect or healthy.
A trauma that doesn’t heal is like stepping on something sharp that gets pushed way in and isn’t removed. The skin may heal over, we may still be able to walk, but it’s in there, causing twinges whenever anything pushes just a bit the wrong way. It can be a small splinter or a whole nail, both hurt. To fully heal, it has to come out and the wound needs to be clean.
An emotional trauma can start from something small. Starting with examples of things in childhood; being stung by a bee, having a large dog bark at you every time you go past on the way to see a friend, having to move away from people who really matter – these are a few types of ‘something sharp’ that happen to kids. Being in a car accident, parents divorcing, wandering away from a picnic site or campground and getting lost for a few hours – those are maybe bigger, or sharper.
As people get older they develop more coping skills, a wider range of potential support, but we’re also exposed to more things that could hurt. Not making the cut for a team or band or cast for a play can be annoying, or it can be devastating. Being bullied, having a friend or family member die, discovering an important part of who we are that isn’t in tune with the family or social group around us are all possible kinds of pain. Having a hard time fitting in or making friends or figuring out love and attraction and relationships, discovering a learning disability, getting a severe injury… each of these examples is possible, and each one can be something that we may or may not have the skill & help to work through.
We keep on growing up, and we keep on finding more possibilities in life. Many are wonderful or interesting, some aren’t really for us. Some can cause pain that we feel & grow through, some can cause pain that sticks. A bad relationship or a rough breakup is one of the most common ‘grown-up’ traumas I hear about, but staying in a relationship with a pretty good person can result in traumas, too. An disagreement that turns into a piece of ongoing tension causes trauma. Having a career come to a stop, not being able to have children or having unplanned children, all the times that we end up stuck with only bad choices and worse choices – they’re all upsetting, worrisome, scary, painful. They all cause at least a bit of trauma.
From early childhood issues onward, everything that causes lasting trauma has aspects in common, which means that it can all be treated in similar ways. It also means that in many ways, it doesn’t matter if your trauma was small or large, common or uncommon – the effects are going to be similar.
Okay – so what happens?
The difference between ‘something upsetting’ and ‘trauma’ is that trauma keeps on bothering you. The purpose of addressing it in therapy is to get to the point where it isn’t bothering you any more. Just what ‘bothering you’ means is up to you. You’re still going to know what happened. You’ll still remember that it was really upsetting and might have affected a few or a lot of the decisions you made. It could be affecting your relationships, how you raise your kids, how close you get to friends, what you do or don’t do in your free time, fears, phobias – all kinds of things. How much you need to understand, to change, and to feel depends on you, but it IS something you can do.
If something hurt and you had the right support, the right people, the best ways to express what happened, and the most understanding family &/or friends after something hurt you, you probably went through a process of feeling hurt & scared, feeling mad that it happened, wondering what would happen next, and then you started to feel like yourself again. You hurt when you thought about it, but not all the time. You were mad, but again, not all the time. If what happened to you was something that shouldn’t happen, your experience might have motivated you to speak out for change. If you went through something that could happen again, you learned what some of the warning signs were so you could avoid it.
With those hurts, you got through it. It’s in the past. You aren’t still hurt and scared now.
With a trauma that is still bothering you (yep – that’s redundant, since I said the definition of trauma is that it’s still bothering you), it isn’t in the past yet. As far as your mind is concerned, it’s still happening. The perfect process that I just described hasn’t happened yet. If you didn’t have the right support to work on it when it happened, or if it still bothers you, that’s when it’s time for therapy.
In therapy, we work to help your brain put it in the past. This part is where things are different for each person, because people work through things differently. For some people, processing means talking about their pain and talking about other parts of their lives that have been affected by that pain. Some people need to take note of what has changed and what hasn’t changed, so that they can really see that it’s not happening anymore. Some people need to express all the thoughts & feelings they had when they were hurt. Some people are very analytical and need to make lists of now and then. Some people need to give themselves permission to feel emotions or sensations that used to hurt and that they pulled back from so they wouldn’t hurt anymore. Some people work better by drawing, or writing, or acting out what happened.
All of those ways are good ways to work through trauma – it just depends on what’s best for you. All of these things are working toward the same place. The goal is to have the brain understand that whatever happened, it was in the past, and it isn’t happening now.
And then what?
Once the brain understands that what happened is past, it changes how it reacts. When your brain thinks something harmful is happening Right Now, it sends out a lot of alarm Right Now. Your brain in ‘harm happening’ mode ups your adrenaline so you can fight or run away or hide. It shuts down most of your ability to do things that take a lot of thought, like translating languages or doing math or remembering facts, so that it has more ability to react to whatever happens next. It’s like a computer – it can be running a lot of music & video, OR doing a lot of word processing and finding information, OR fast communications, OR putting information into charts & finding answers – it can’t do all of it all at once. Your brain wants to deal with pain first so that you get safe to do other things later – but if it doesn’t know that the pain stopped, it has a hard time believing that it IS later.
Once your brain believes that the danger is past, it can consider whether the danger was really as big as you thought it might be. It can decide what to do next time. It can worry about danger another time and let you talk with people or decide what to plant in your garden or remind you that it’s time for lunch.
If you went through something that changed your life, your brain needs to catch up. If your brain is still in trauma mode, it isn’t paying too much attention to forming a close relationship or learning the skills to be good at your job or feeling safe trying out new things. The more you’ve changed, the more your brain needs to catch up to where you are and where you want to be. Working through trauma means that your brain starts to believe that what happened is past, and you can get on with your life.
So it’ll be all better?
It will be much better than it was. Working through trauma can’t change the past, and it can’t undo what happened, but you can feel safe, and you can feel comfortable being you. You can learn from things that have happened, and be able to learn from new things. You can make decisions based on what you want, not based on what would keep you safe from something that already happened. You can be you – and being you is a wonderful person to be!