Understanding trauma is hard and the more time we spend with it, the clearer our understanding gets. Here is what I know today.
“Trauma is extreme stress that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope.” – Katherin Aubrey
“If danger, perceived or real causes anything that overwhelms our system, we go into an energy conservation state, and that is trauma.”– Dr. Aimie Apigian from the podcast Healing Stored Trauma on the C60 Health Connection.
“People are overwhelmed and traumatized because things have happened too fast for them to process and respond and integrate.” – Dr. Peter Lavine
“Trauma is a disconnection from the self.” – Gabor Maté
“When any of us are traumatized, there is this combination of the energy that is compressed, and the beliefs about ourselves that we formed from that experience and as we open to those energies through our bodily felt sense, we then have the opportunity to correct, as it were, those traumatically inspired concepts of ourselves.”- Dr. Peter Lavine
“Trauma is when we have encountered an out of control, frightening experience that has disconnected us from all sense of resourcefulness or safety or coping or love”. – Tara Brach
“Underneath every Trauma, if you dig down far enough, is unresolved un-tended-to grief. But you can’t get to grief if you are in the middle of a trauma response.” – Britt Frank
Dr. Paul Conti in his book Trauma: the invisible epidemic, distinguishes between three types of trauma: Acute, Chronic, and Vicarious. Acute trauma results from one severe event, the kind of thing we generally recognize as trauma from historic definitions, a car accident, act of violence, broken bone, etc. Chronic trauma is long exposure to a low, medium, or high level stressor such as war, a pandemic, or an abusive person. Vicarious trauma is when we witness someone else’s trauma, or enter into someone else’s story of trauma to such a degree that it leaves us traumatized as well.
“Shame, like trauma, puts the body in a freeze state and lowers the ability to think and act clearly. Shame feels like a fog or cover, something that is external, that makes it hard to function. I think of shame as developmental trauma.” – Bret Lyon
Developmental trauma is a category that is generally related to childhood and includes neglect and other Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACES.
So what has emerged for me is an understanding of Trauma as a complex neurological response to external stimuli. The stimuli is interpreted as being dangerous because it threatens either our physical self or our concept of ourself. In response to this threat, our body initiates a shut down sequence. This is similar to or perhaps the same as the dorsal vagal response, but it becomes rooted or stuck because of the concentration of information that needs to be processed.
I think of it as a stimulus jolt to our system that contains too much to process in a short time, so the nervous system copies it and saves it for later processing. “I don’t understand this, so I will capture it in all it’s details and unpack it over time.” But the problem is that we don’t know how to process such an intense experience and when we try, it overwhelms us again. This can lead to acute trauma. Our system knows that there is something deeply important and disturbing about the experience that could hold potential for deep learning. Britt frank says Trauma interrupts the brain’s digestion process and gives us neural indigestion.
I think what this means is that the ultimate goal of trauma work is to look at what was lost in the experience, in a way that feels safe and non-threatening, so we can feel the broken shards and let them go. Broken shards of what? Of whatever the trauma broke.
The path through the broken shards always seems to be to feel the feelings, think the thoughts, and learn the insights hidden in an experience that seems so cruel.
Dr. Peter Lavine says, “In summary, the mastery of trauma is a heroic journey. A journey that has times of creative brilliance, profound learning and insight, and just periods of hard tedious work. It is a process of finding for ourselves a safe and gentle ways to come out of immobility.”
One of the cutting edges for me personally is the idea of completion of a physical response. I find myself wanting to put my hands up to ward off the danger, and so when I process the memory, I put my hands up, push away and feel the completion of the response.
My belief is that if we find techniques like this, and exercise them in a way that feels safe, the trauma responses doesn’t need to keep protecting us from the experience.
I wish you courage on your heroic journey to find your own safe and gentle way to healing.