As a nation, we move fast to trauma with a capital ‘T’.
There is no room left for doubts in our efficiency in the face of danger and calamity. The nation springs into action in the face of disease or virus outbreaks. Support and relief are quickly mobilised to countries facing natural disasters and man-made catastrophes.
But there seems to be less aptitude when it comes to trauma with a small letter ‘t’.
What is trauma with a little ‘t’?
But trauma isn’t just about events of big proportions.
Anything that happens too fast, sudden, and/or too much for our bodies to cope with — anything that causes our stress response to go into overdrive — can become a potential form of trauma.
In other words, trauma is a disruption and disconnection to our sense of safety and trust when certain events, people and places in our life overwhelm us.
Everyday traumas can emerge from:
Witnessing a divorce in the family or death of a loved one
Not having our needs met, experiencing rejection, or being dismissed in our relationships
Living in constant worry or anxiety from the factors in our home environments
Micro-aggressions stemming from societal biases like gender and race
Little traumas can have insidious ways of accumulating over time if left unattended. Without learning healthy ways to release held tensions and integrate our traumatic experiences in our body, our body learns to form its own habitual pattern in responding to trauma triggers through sensations, images, and behaviours.
The impact of trauma on our body
Accumulated traumas can wear us down, physically and emotionally.
When life becomes too fast, too sudden or too much for us to bear, we may become too much or too little with ourselves. It becomes increasingly challenging to find the centred point of balance where we feel grounded, present and stable. Some of us spiral into an endless loop of doubts and anxiety — in our thoughts, our speech, and our actions. Some of us burn ourselves up and the people around us in the fires of deep, gutted rage. Others walk down the path into the fog of disconnection with themselves and their families.
We may find it harder and harder to bounce back from changes in our lives.
None of those expressions signifies anything wrong, or faulty, with us. Those expressions are our bodies’ best attempts to adapt and survive the environments that we find ourselves in, environments that can be unbearingly harsh — an abusive partner, a toxic or manipulative boss at work, a rejecting parent, a bullying senior in school or an oppressive society.
Flight, flight or freeze
In times of events, interactions or circumstances that come too much, fast or soon, every other emotion gets swept under the rug. Our body takes over to protect us from shocking and overwhelming experiences through the the “fight, flight and freeze” stress response. We lose the mental and heart space to sift through the nuances in our feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations.
The impact of trauma on our brain
Research built upon decades of brain scans studies also reflects trauma’s tremendous impact on our brain and its processes.
The classical stress response model explains how trauma damages our ability to respond to stress. Living with the aftermath of a traumatic episode or episodes, we may continue to experience flashbacks, triggers and reminders of the trauma where our body automatically activates the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis and the stress response, putting ourselves back to “fight or flight” behaviours long after the traumatic episode had passed (Van Der Kolk, 2014).
Studies have also found the strongest activations in parts of our brain where our emotions and stress responses are processed, such as the limbic system. The brain scans revealed activation on the right side that controls the emotional, visual, spatial, auditory and other sensory processes and memories. The region that controls our speech and the integration of our thoughts, logic, and facts into words, was found to be “turned off”.
This explains why some of us may find it hard to tell other people what has happened to us, even though our bodies may re-live the anger, the terror and powerlessness every day. For others, we seem to be able to retell the traumatic story over and again to different people. With repetitive sharings, a story of the trauma can form.
Yet this factual, sometimes monotoned style of storytelling hardly captures the real inner, visceral experiences and sensations, like the way the sounds pierced when the car crash happened, the way the aftershave that our absent, rejecting caregiver used smelled, or the way our knees trembled when we saw the cane or the belt in the shops.
This is likely why individuals living with unresolved and/or accumulated trauma can also find it hard to connect with their present inner sensations. Both mind and body systems collapse in the presence of ongoing threats, even perceived ones. Any subtle shift in sensations can feel overwhelming in a body that cannot establish a safe and comfortable connection with itself.
What we call “trauma”, then, is essentially a re-experiencing of distress, like a leftover imprint on our mind and body that violently shakes our core over and again.
Finding a way back to ourselves
The road to healing from trauma is analogous to getting aboard a journey to return home after being away for a long time.
The home that is our body and mind, one that we feel safe and comfortable in, one that we can proudly call our own and one that we can fully accept and embrace — quirks, strengths, beauty, flaws and all.
Healing is circular, not linear. We may take two steps forward only to fall one giant step back.
If we find the courage to let go of preconceived notions that our mental health is static and that trauma healing has a fixed timeline, we see that all of this is a part of our human experience — one that has no expiry date, nor the pressure to arrive.
This is originally published HERE, as part of a series on trauma written in collaboration with the white book. In this series, we unpack what trauma is and where it lies for each of us, as well as how we can start to move away from existing traumas through self-awareness and coregulation. Find out more at thewhitebook.info