What is trauma?

Do you feel intense rage or sadness in situations that do not seem to justify such extreme reactions? Do you often feel deeply vulnerable, as if your whole skin has been peeled off and even the slightest touch can provoke a lot of pain? Do you feel helpless, stuck, captive in situations or relationships? Do you often feel numb or disconnected from the others and from your own emotions?

These are all trauma symptoms.

Trauma is not just something that happens to kids who been abandoned or sexually abused, or to adults experiencing the horrors of war. It can also stem from different forms of neglect and emotional deprivation, or from more subtle forms of abuse that may not involve shouting or physical scars.

Lately I’ve been interested in knowing more about trauma and how to deal with it. There is a growing literature on the subject, from people such as Peter Levine, Stephen Porges, Gabor Mate, Bessel van der Kolk and others. The accumulated knowledge is slowly making its way into public awareness.

However, as with many other areas of knowledge, the common beliefs that many of us hold do not reflect the available knowledge on the subject. The common knowledge often simplifies too much, misinterprets or misuses what is known about trauma.

Collectively, we tend to get stuck in beliefs and ways of doing things that have been long proven ineffective or simply wrong. Not because we don’t have the knowledge, but because it takes time and effort for that knowledge to percolate into public awareness, social acceptance, and ultimately behavior.

Where trauma comes from

The way people move in and out of trauma is profoundly personal. Similar circumstances or events leave different imprints and provoke different reactions in people. If these imprints and reactions solidify into what we call trauma, the way out of it are just as diverse and personalized. For some, exposure therapy may work well, while for others even minor exposures to traumatic triggers may provoke a breakdown or a prolonged crisis.

If you bring forth that which is within you, then that which is within you will be your salvation. If you do not bring forth that which is within you, then that which is within you will destroy you.

The Gnostic Gospels

First, it is important to distinguish between traumatic events and trauma. Traumatic events can include physical or psychological abuse or neglect, war and conflict, material deprivation and others. Trauma, as Gabor Mate puts it, is what happens inside of us as a result of what happens to us. The trauma is the psychosomatic reaction to events and circumstances that we perceived as life-threatening and overwhelming.

It’s beside the point if those events were in fact life-threatening or not. For a child, the neglect stemming from a broken marriage can be experienced as a major threat, although his/her survival and livelihood were not put into question. For an adult with a traumatic history, a separation or a break-up can act as powerful reactivators of early trauma, or even add to it. In both cases, the way people experience these events is marked by a sense of overwhelm and helplessness. It’s like one of those nightmares in which you are chased by something scary but for some reason you cannot move.

Traumatic reactions include feelings of shame, guilt, and defectiveness. Unlike “normal” manifestations of these feelings, traumatic reactions are persistent, recurring and partially disconnected from the circumstances in which they manifest (meaning that what happens does not fully explain such reactions). But it’s not simply that the experiences we are facing feel overwhelming or unbearable. It’s the fact that we are alone in this, that we do not feel seen, understood, witnessed.

The difference between painful experiences and traumatic experiences does not have to do with the experiences themselves, but with the way we experience them. Of course, some life experiences have a higher traumatic potential than others. However, something that can be experienced by one child as a difficult episode, and nothing more, will be experienced by another child as a deep wound that tends to show up over and over again later in life.

Treating these differences in terms of “not strong enough” or “too sensitive” completely misses the point and, for the affected person, is completely counterproductive. People are not “weak” because they struggle or break down in situations that others perceive differently. They are dealing with a traumatic burden that others do not know and do not have.

What trauma is not

Since trauma refers to how we respond to a situation and not to the situation itself, not all difficult experiences are traumatic. We sometimes use the word loosely, as when we speak of a traumatic meeting or even a traumatic movie, but what we really mean is that we had a strong negative emotional reaction. However, unless that experience was perceived as life-threatening, and we felt unable to protect ourselves or get out of it, chances are we didn’t suffer a trauma.

What will turn some of our difficult experiences into traumatic experiences has to do with us – with our perceptions, emotions and coping mechanisms. While it’s true that dramatic events such as physical or sexual abuse are very likely to lead to trauma, there is a lot of variability in how people respond to even the most difficult circumstances.

Moreover, experiencing strong emotions is not necessarily a sign of trauma. Sometimes we are sad, sometimes we are angry, sometimes we overreact. Emotions come and go, and even at the height of our rage there is something in us that knows it will pass. With trauma, we experience being stuck, being caught in a mechanism that tends to reproduce itself whenever the right cues or triggers are there.

You can read the second post on this topic here.

10 thoughts on “What is trauma?

  1. A trauma is individual to the subject as we know and sensitive kids with differently wired brains and nervous systems may be triggered in different ways.. so its important you wrote this as the subject is very very complex.. If someone has a reaction that is valid.. it took me a long time to learn that my reactions triggered others and that is why they sidelined me.. it wasn’t my fault.. but it did hurt a lot at the time which is why we do need at least one person to validated our experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think there is quite a bit of ignorance and misunderstanding around trauma and how it manifests, despite the fact that it’s so widespread. As usual, ignorance and misunderstanding hit mostly the people who are dealing with trauma – exactly those who are in need of support.


  2. Very interesting. Two years ago I was backing up from a parking space in my favorite supermarket when I was hit by a semi-truck from behind. It was just a fender bender, no one was hurt, my car’s bumper was damaged. The driver was uninsured, gave me information from an invalid drivers license, then fled the scene before police arrived. To this day I can’t bring myself to shop there: I drive two additional miles to the next market, my brain just won’t listen to the voice of reason, that it’s irrational to avoid that parking lot. A strange story of the power of trauma and I really don’t even think that the accident was a big deal. Go figure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is interesting. It’s just speculation but I’d say that what counted was the interaction with the driver and how he tried to cheat you and cheat his way out of this, rather than the accident itself. Thanks for sharing!


      1. Yes. In my case, there’s a lot I remember. Nothing “major”, but more than enough to explain what happened to me later on. But we don’t actually need to remember all that happened because trauma lives in our bodies and manifests itself. It shows itself in what triggers us, in how we respond to life situations, in our capacity to self-regulate.

        Liked by 1 person

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