It’s a question I have endless compassion for given that it’s a question I asked very early on in my own relational trauma recovery journey, too.
And while trauma – especially relational trauma (sometimes called complex trauma or developmental trauma) is much more elevated as a conversation than it was eight years ago (when I first began writing online), I still find myself doing a lot of psychoeducation in my online course and in my clinical work about what trauma is, what trauma impacts can look like, and why talking about trauma matters so much.
So today’s essay is a summary of some of the key psychoeducational points I like to make about trauma.
I hope that reading this post helps you understand trauma as a concept more and that it possibly helps you see yourself and your story more clearly.
First of all, what is trauma?
Contrary to popular belief, trauma isn’t relegated to just a discrete set of experiences or incidents (like a car crash or wartime conflict).
Instead, trauma has a much more expansive definition.
Trauma can be an event, series of events, or prolonged circumstances that are subjectively experienced by the individual who goes through it as physically, mentally, and emotionally harmful and/or life-threatening and that overwhelms this individual’s ability to effectively cope with what they went through.
What kind of events and circumstances might lead to trauma?
Despite the subjective nature of what defines trauma, there are still several discreet definitions of traumatic experiences that might be helpful to widen the lens of this conversation even further:
- Acute Trauma: Acute trauma refers to a single-incident, one-time event such as experiencing a wildfire, car crash, school shooting, terrorist event, or house fire.
- Chronic Trauma: Chronic trauma is a set of experiences that are repeated and take place over time, such as enduring vicarious trauma on the job, middle school bullying, poverty, exposure to violence in the community, or long-term medical challenges.
- Complex Trauma: Complex trauma, often called developmental or relational trauma, is the kind of trauma that takes place over time in the context of a caretaking relationship (usually between a parent and child) that fails to adequately support the child’s biopsychosocial development such as when ongoing neglect, sexual abuse, physical punishment, witnessing domestic violence, or being raised by a personality- or mood-disordered parent takes place.
- Historical/Racial Trauma: Historical and racial trauma refers to the experiences of racially-driven oppression, targeting, harassment, and discrimination that groups of individuals have experienced over time and that generations after them still suffer the effects of.
What happens when something overwhelms our ability to cope?
When we experience an event, series of events, or prolonged circumstances that overwhelm our ability to effectively cope, our body and brain are changed both temporarily and sometimes long-term.
How do our brain and body change?
When an event that feels life-threatening or deeply physically or emotionally unsafe occurs, our brain’s “reptilian” part (the limbic system, responsible for survival instincts and automatic bodily functions) takes over and the mammalian and neomammalian parts of our brain (responsible for emotional processing, cognitive processing, and decision making) go “offline” as we switch to pure survival mode.
We stay in this mode until the event or circumstance passes – which can certainly be helpful in surviving the moment!
Then, in some cases, after we move through scary situations, and even if our body and brain respond this way, we’re later able to properly “metabolize” and “digest” the experiences we went through cognitively, emotionally, and physically, leaving us with no maladaptive trauma symptoms.
But at other times, when we aren’t adequately supported (either internally or externally) to make sense of and process the hardship we went through, our brains and the cells of our bodies are left with an imprint and impact of the experiences we endured and we may be left with a host of biopsychosocial consequences that impede our ability to move effectively through our lives, post-trauma.
What are some of the impacts and imprints of unresolved trauma?
- Depression and/or anxiety (including generalized anxiety);
- Irritability and being very short-tempered, having a short fuse;
- Loss of interest in things that used to bring you pleasure, or in life itself;
- Numbing through substances and behaviors, repeatedly and compulsively;
- Trouble concentrating, focusing, and self-organizing;
- Insomnia and challenges sleeping (including nightmares);
- Feeling emotionally flooded and overwhelmed very easily;
- An inability to visualize a future (let alone a positive future);
- Hopelessness and a sense of despair;
- Shame, a sense that you’re worthless;
- Few or no memories, feeling like your childhood is a fog or a big blank;
- Hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, and general mistrust;
- Body symptoms such as aches, pains, headaches, GI issues, muscle rigidity;
- Substance abuse and eating disorders;
- Self-harming or destructive behaviors such as cutting or burning;
- Feeling like you have no true self, like you don’t know who you really are.
- And more.
Busting a very common trauma myth:
Very importantly, you can have endured trauma and have unresolved trauma impacts playing out in your life and still be “high functioning” and academically, professionally, and financially accomplished.
It’s a common myth – alongside the myth that trauma is only what war veterans go through – that if you have unresolved trauma symptoms, you must be “low functioning” and barely able to hold down a job, make it through your days, and function well in life.
Of course, sometimes that is true.
But what’s also true is that you can be a tech founder, a high-powered lawyer, an active mom, or a student in a top Ph.D. program and still have unresolved trauma symptoms.
You likely just feel like you’re building a house on quicksand and have found a range of ways to cope and adapt around your trauma impacts.
So why talk about trauma? What’s so important about this?
Because when we see a thing more clearly – in this case, a wider, subjective lens of trauma and examples of unresolved trauma impacts – we can perhaps see ourselves and our stories more clearly and therefore get the targeted, expert help we need to actually, truly resolve our trauma symptoms.
Because, yes, it’s possible to resolve trauma symptoms no matter how long-standing they are.
BUT, very importantly, this does require the right kind of support.
And in this case, those who endured trauma and who have unresolved trauma impacts at play in their own lives need trauma therapy – not just general talk therapy.
Trauma therapy that takes place with a licensed mental health professional who has had advanced training in evidence-based trauma treatment modalities such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) or Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) can effectively, efficiently, and skillfully resolve the maladaptive biopsychosocial impacts of your trauma.
And this is what I do as a practicing trauma clinician and, indeed, it’s what my team of 18 clinicians at Evergreen Counseling (the boutique trauma-informed therapy center I founded in downtown Berkeley, California) do day in and day out.
My team and I are a highly trained group of clinicians who are dedicated to helping those who lived through trauma resolve the impacts of their past with evidence-based trauma treatment modalities.
So, if you live here in California and if you would like to book a 20-minute complimentary consultation call with my center’s clinical intake coordinator to learn more about my team and I can be of support to you personally, please reach out.
And, if you don’t feel quite ready to begin therapy with a trauma therapist, that’s perfectly fine.
You are the expert of your experience and only you know when the best time for this might be.
In the meantime, I’d love to invite you to read any of the 175+ essays I’ve written over the last eight years here on this blog – all dedicated to aspects of recovering from a relational trauma recovery journey.
My hope – through this essay, all of my other essays, and through my clinical work in the world – is that by learning more about trauma and the multifaceted aspects of trauma recovery, you will feel more seen and more supported in your own healing journey.
If today’s essay resonated with you, if you learned something new from it, I’d be delighted to hear from you in the comments below.
And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.