No such thing.
I care about the human experience of trauma. Having been diagnosed with PTS (post-traumatic stress) in my late 20's, I am deeply aware that true healing is about reclaiming a sense of joy, aliveness, and connecting to self and others in meaningful ways. I am committed to this work because trauma is a human experience that we will be in relation to for the rest of our lives -- life is filled with challenges, difficulties, and stresses. Just as it is filled with beauty, joy, and delight. To understand trauma is to embrace the fullness of our human experience: both the fragility of our body psyche and the incredible resilience.
We are taught that trauma is an event or a circumstance that is disturbing and overwhelming (see dictionary). This is a gross simplification of the truth of what trauma is, and how it impacts the body and therefore, the way we live. Not only is this a simplification, but it might incline you to dismiss your own experience and wonder what is wrong with you (since you didn't experience an event you would characterize as trauma).
There is no such thing as a traumatic event.
There are certain events or circumstances that are more likely to lead to trauma for a given individual, but the jury is still out as to why some people experience a violent or harmful event as traumatic and others simply do not. In other words, there is no such thing as a traumatic event: only events and circumstances that might become trauma in an individual (or collective) body psyche.
Trauma is the after-effect of any experience or circumstance (singular or ongoing) that an individual or community is unable to process in the moment or shortly thereafter.
What does this really mean? Having a clear understanding of what trauma is, and is not, is the first step toward compassion when you, your beloveds, or your community are faced with experiences that may be traumatic.
The three facets of trauma.
One: the event or circumstance
Through research (and experience) we can make a good guess as to what kinds of experiences or events are more likely to lead to trauma. That being said, almost any experience or circumstance can activate a trauma response because remember, trauma is the after-effect -- it is the inability to process the emotions and sensations of the event in the moment or shortly after. The upshot is that not every person who experiences violence or war or other events that are likely to be traumatic, experiences trauma and yet, there are experiences and circumstances that can trigger a trauma response in an individual that might be unexpected.
Bottom line? The experience or circumstance itself is not trauma. This is worth taking in and repeating.
Two: the embodied reaction
It is inevitable that we will encounter experiences and events that have a level of intensity that activates our fight, flight, or freeze nervous system response. This is a beautiful, healthy aspect of our body psyche. The way that our nervous system reacts (fight, flight, or freeze) is not chosen, it is completely unconscious and automatic.
This embodied reaction that we have is based on history, the health of our physical selves, past experience, and current stress levels. Most important to remember is that the way that our body reacts in any given circumstance or event? This, too, is not trauma.
Three: the response
If, during the event and our embodied reaction to the event, we are unable to process the impulse, energy, and sensation that is happening in our body, this is where trauma can occur.
Remember: trauma is the after-effect of any experience or circumstance (singular or ongoing) that an individual or community is unable to process in the moment or shortly thereafter.
You have likely experienced the extra energy in your body after an intense event: perhaps your body shook, or you couldn't sit still, or your heart kept racing.... we are the only mammals on earth that consciously override the body's impulse to burn off, or process, that excess energy. When we don't allow ourselves to feel and experience that energy, sensation, and emotion? That is when trauma occurs, becoming frozen energy within the body psyche.
The manifestations of trauma, or this frozen energy, are so vast I call it the trauma continuum: from being "on edge" or feeling shut down all the way to the clinical end of the spectrum where a person experiences post-traumatic stress or complex trauma.
Enter the hippos
Though I have blessedly been free of post-traumatic stress symptoms for many years, I still experience events that leave heightened energy stuck in my body psyche. Last year, my daughter and I were on a trip in the Zambian bush when, on a guided river trip, we ended up in a close encounter with a pod of hippos -- the most dangerous non-human mammals on earth.
That evening, while my daughter slept peacefully, I couldn't sleep. I was restless and anxious, my hearing on high alert for... you guessed it, hippos. I recognized that I had unprocessed energy from the earlier hippo encounter. I carefully got out of bed and spent time feeling the sensations in my body. I shook, I walked around our tent, and then, finally, I cried. I allowed my body to come to completion and process the hippo experience.
Trauma is a human experience.
Though we often think of trauma as being a particular kind of experience, it is not -- there is no universally traumatic experience. Our unconscious, embodied reaction to the intensity of life's experiences (fight, flight, freeze) is also not trauma -- it is the beautiful and healthy way our body keeps us safe from harm. It is our response that determines whether an event or a circumstance become trauma within our body psyche. If we are unable to process an experience at the moment, when we override the body's indicators that we need to process an event, then we are likely to experience the effects of trauma.
It is in finding a deeper, truer understanding of trauma that we are able to extend compassion and wisdom toward our own experiences and the experiences of those around us. Ultimately, it is our capacity to navigate trauma that brings true healing and allows individuals and communities to reclaim a sense of joy, aliveness, and connection to self and others in meaningful ways.
We are currently living in extraordinary times. There are ample opportunities to be exposed to events, our embodied responses, and the way we welcome or deny our bodies the gift of processing current events. My deepest wish is that greater understanding leads you to compassionate action with your own trauma responses as well as others'. This is the foundation of presence, clear thinking, and peace as we face the complex and challenging issues that we face individually and collectively.
In service to a kinder, more peaceful, and equitable world for all.
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