Trauma can be caused by a wide variety of events, but there are a few common aspects.
We are temporary, finite and fragile, but most of the time we only know this as an abstract, theoretical concept. When the knowledge of our mortality becomes experiential, our serenity is shaken. It may take some time, and some effort, to absorb this realization and return to a balanced and centered state.
The event itself matters much less than the person’s perception of it. Any situation that leaves a person feeling bereft, frightened and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. Experiences involving betrayal, verbal abuse, or any major loss can be just as traumatizing as a life-threatening catastrophe, especially when they happen to children.
Whether the threat is physical or psychological, trauma results when an experience is so overwhelming that people freeze like the proverbial deer-in-the-headlights, go numb, become dazed or disoriented, or disconnect from what’s happening. This automatic response protects us from the terror we feel, but it also prevents us from moving on when the situation changes.
If not resolved, trauma-related emotions get buried deep within, hidden from conscious awareness. They smolder there, intense as ever, influencing the way traumatized people perceive the world, react to everyday situations, and relate to others. With any further pressure on the fragile structure containing these horrific memories, they may explode.
Psychology offers several staged models of human growth. Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), widely considered to be the father of Humanistic Psychology, proposed one of the simplest, most useful, and best known of these. In Maslow’s model, survival needs come first, followed by security needs. When these needs are satisfied, people are more able to approach the “higher” issues of fulfilling work, intimacy in relationships, self-actualization, and, ultimately, spiritual growth.
Please remember that this is a model, not a fact of life. Resilient people can and have transcended trauma. We have the testimony of Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) and others that even in the Nazi concentration camps, some people organized chamber music groups or Talmud study groups to help themselves survive a traumatic situation emotionally and spiritually intact. The intact preservation of the Tables of Ifa by oral transmission among slaves who endured the multiple traumas of kidnapping, the Middle Passage, and the sugar plantations also gives testimony to the triumphant magnificence of the human spirit.
Yet Maslow’s model does hold for most of the people most of the time. People don’t usually worry about higher goals until they are pretty sure they have food and shelter for today (survival) and for tomorrow (security), but neither will they be fully satisfied by simple survival or security. Happy people are those whose live fully on all levels.
In that context, traumatic experience tends to push a person’s attention back to the raw and primal needs of survival and security.
affect large numbers of people. Some are traumatized;
others are not.
Why does the
same event traumatize one person and not another? There
answer to this question, but it is likely that one or
more of these
Also, many people struggling with trauma suffer from stress pileup, an accumulation of traumatic stress over their lifetime. People can carry loads of stress and still function adequately for a long time. But eventually something, although perhaps small in itself, becomes the proverbial "last straw," overloading their capacity and snapping their resilience. Their defenses may then collapse, allowing suppressed memories of earlier trauma to surface in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Keeping the idea of stress pileup in mind, coping with trauma entails (1) learning to regulate emotional distress more effectively and (2) minimizing exposure to further stress to the extent humanly possible. Both of these strategies require conscious, intentional, and lifelong self-care.
When the traumatic event is over and the initial shock subsides, continuing reactions vary from one person to another. Please remember that these are initially normal reactions to abnormal events, although they may cause problems later if they are not resolved and healed. Here are some typical responses to trauma:
Bridges to Healing Trauma
In general, the healing process involves two interrelated steps:
Traumatic memories are very different from normal memories. Extreme stress functions like a pause button on the brain, preventing people from integrating traumatic experience into a coherent memory of what happened. Without a “story” that can be revisited and interpreted, it’s impossible to put the experience into context or into the past.
As a result, traumatic memories are relived rather than simply remembered. They may exist only in split-off fragments—raw emotions, bodily sensations, frightening images, smells and sounds, physical pain—that feel just as real, or surreal, as they did during the original trauma. Reconnecting these emotional fragments, creating a coherent narrative, allows people to process the memory and put it into perspective at long last.
Caution: remembering traumatic events can be retraumatizing. If the trauma was severe, or the symptoms are long-lasting and disturbing, it may be best to work with a therapist who specializes in resolving trauma.
When a threat is so overwhelming that survival seems impossible, the natural response is to freeze. This frozen state of shock traps the intense energies of the fight-or-flight response in the body. Some part of the person's mind seizes up. The distress is also carried and encoded in the body.
The symptoms of trauma can be understood as the result of the body’s attempts to contain or control this pent-up energy. One of the first steps in healing is to discharge this energy in a physical way, such as:
Since trauma comes from a sense of extreme helplessness in the face of life-threatening danger or intolerable personal violation, full healing requires not just recovery, but re-empowerment.
Even without a therapist, here are some things traumatized people can do – with a little help from loved ones and friends – to begin to restore emotional well being and a sense of control following a disaster or other traumatic experience:
To learn more:
published by the
This article provides an excellent overview of trauma