What exactly is trauma?! – ALL. THE. Fs. (see 5th paragraph, below!)
Our present-day understanding of trauma originates from the idea of “shellshock”, which described the PTSD-like state some soldiers exhibited, as they returned from the first world war in the early 1900s. This was before post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD was recognized.
Initially, we defined trauma by the type of event someone had endured. This started with being in the war, then included other “major events” such as being in natural disasters and having survived serious violence/abuse, and was then expanded further into having witnessed or heard about violence/other difficult material, being a part of a culture that has endured serious oppression, various forms of neglect and non-physical abuse, death/grief… Until we finally realized that almost any big event (or smaller set of events) can be experienced as traumatic, depending on the person experiencing it: breakups, bullying, big moves, microaggressions…
So, at this time, we understand that traumatic reactions can come from any life experience we cannot integrate into our life story and understanding of self/others/the world. It shatters our world view. We cannot make sense of the experience in the moment, and often cannot react in a way that makes sense to us, which splits off this experience in our brain and fragments us. Think of a mirror exploding into shards of glass, or of a part of ourselves split off, like a partition of a hard drive.
We react to traumatic events the way we do to anything that activates our threat brain or limbic system, but in a magnified way: with ALL. THE. Fs. (not telling you to give any, but the “reaction to trauma” words all seem to come with Fs!) Fight Flight Freeze Flop Fawn. There are more of these words, but these are the main ones I focus on in my practice. Freeze, Flop, and Fawn deserve special attention, out of this list. Why? Because one of the predictors of developing PTSD is not being able to defend yourself or run away (helplessness), as this traps the fight/flight energy or response pattern in your body. Essentially, you did what you needed to survive in the short-term, but you also inadvertently created a tangled ball in some forgotten, dark corner of yourself, which now needs to be seen, heard, understood, untangled, and expressed, so you can get back to making empowered choices about the life you deeply want. Maybe you were a small child when all this happened to you, maybe not, but either way, trust your body did what it needed to to keep you safe. That response just no longer serves you now.
Not everyone goes on to develop PTSD, of course, but we may still have a lesser form of trauma that needs to be integrated, or we may still be governed by old, automatic responses that aren’t benefiting us (based on the Fs). For example, if I grew up in a household where my voice was not heard until I got angry, I may still use my explosiveness to get my needs met in adult relationships. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it causes major problems in my life, so I need to be able to understand where it comes from, notice it nonjudgmentally in the moment, and then make a different choice based on my present circumstances (e.g., with my boss, my children, or my partner).