This blog was originally posted by Rachel Sellers on July 11, 2020. To see the original post visit www.rachelesellers.com.
Mainstream culture has adopted an extremely narrow-minded view and understanding of trauma, and we desperately need a paradigm shift. I’d go so far as to say that the health of our country depends on it.
If you are reading these words, you have experienced trauma and probably a lot of it. 2020 has been covered in global and collective trauma, as have the many years before that. Perhaps, as you reflect on your life, you think of a few ups and downs. But you think, nothing “that bad” has happened. You’ve “gotten over it”, you’ve “forgotten about it.” Maybe you have (or maybe you’ve just successfully repressed it?) Even still, you carry trauma in your body, both yours and what you’ve inherited from your ancestors, because you are a human who is alive right now.
Words like sexual assault, natural disasters and childhood maltreatment would likely fall into your socially constructed category of “trauma.” And these are certainly traumatic experiences. But we must deconstruct the narrative that only these “big things” are traumatic, that only the big things “count” as trauma. This lack of understanding has kept us, personally and collectively, in so much denial and pain.
Experts in the field of neurobiology, psychology, and psychotherapy have widened my understanding of trauma and its impact on the brain and the body. I’d like to share some of their wisdom and words.
Bessel Van Der Kolk defines trauma as “An event that overwhelms the central nervous system, altering the way we process and recall memories. Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then, it’s the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside people.”
Peter Levine says, “A trauma is defined by a shocking or a dangerous event that you see or experience.” He also states that the nervous system (your body) cannot discriminate between trauma and simply being overwhelmed.
Resmaa Menakem states, “When something happens to the body that is too much, too fast, or too soon, it overwhelms the body and can create trauma.” He also says (and I think this is incredibly well-stated), “Trauma is a wordless story our body tells itself about what is safe and what is a threat. Our rational brain can’t stop it from occurring, and it can’t talk our body out of it. Something in the here and now is rekindling old pain or discomfort, and the body tries to address it with the reflexive energy that’s still stuck inside the nervous system.”
Janina Fisher states, “Trauma is defined as an overwhelming experience that exceeds our capacity to make sense of it, no matter how resilient we are.”
Do you see a pattern here? Trauma is not the event itself, but rather what happens in our bodies when we experience something overwhelming. Trauma is a response, not an event, nor is it simply an emotional response. Trauma is what happens in the body. This is why, for example, two people may experience the same event, like hearing fireworks or witnessing a car accident, and have two totally different responses. This is because these two people are perceiving and responding to this event in different ways.
After trauma (which you have experienced), you experience the world with an entirely new nervous system. I wrote a blog post explaining the nervous system and diving deeper into trauma responses, so feel free to go read it! But what I’ll say here is this— one of the most pervasive impacts of trauma is the way that it affects the threat-perception system. This is our bodies “alarm” system, the system that alerts us in the face of danger (those moments where we really do need to fight, flight or freeze in order to survive.) Once trauma gets stuck in the body, and if it is not addressed, the body’s threat-perception system becomes extra sensitive, and we perceive danger when there is no danger at all. When this happens, your “thinking” brain goes totally offline, and your body reacts just like it would if you were really in danger. Stress hormones begin cascading through the body and you may become explosive for seemingly “no reason” and/or numb out and disconnect from yourself.
There are several opinions out there about what can and will change the world. But I really believe that if collectively and individually we all began to heal our trauma, the world may start to heal too.
I don’t believe in pathology, and I don’t think people are mentally “ill.” I think we’re all just incredibly traumatized and hurt. I think we’re also exceptionally creative because we sure have adopted a library of unhelpful coping strategies to deal with it. We’re pretty damn resilient, too. During these past two years of studying psychology and counseling, I have realized that what lives and breathes under the guise of a “disorder” is unhealed trauma. Anxiety and depression are consequences of a dysregulated nervous system, and if we want to achieve better mental health, we have to look at trauma and we have to engage the body. We’re not brains on a stick, people.
Several things get in the way of us admitting and facing our trauma, and what’s ironic, is that what gets in the way of us facing it is a result of the trauma itself. One of the reasons that we don’t face it is because we are still actively living in an activated, trauma-response state (i.e.: fight, flight, freeze, fawn.) We’ve become so conditioned to living this way that we don’t even realize we’re stuck and disconnected. What is actually a traumatized state has become our normal, this-is-how-I-am state. Another reason we don’t face our trauma is because we get stuck in this popular yet entirely unhelpful narrative— “But I don’t have it as bad as them.” Sure, maybe you haven’t been sexually assaulted or maybe you’ve never been a part of or witnessed a mass shooting, but the presence of such abhorrent violence and pain doesn’t discount yours. Your trauma matters. Period.
Look, if trauma is an overwhelming or terrifying experience, then we’re all traumatized. And if we’re all traumatized, then wouldn’t it make sense that the stigma for getting help might start disintegrating? I truly hope so.
Our bodies are resilient. They are as susceptible to healing as they are to trauma. If you want better mental and physical health, perhaps it’s time to look inside yourself. Reach out to a trauma-informed therapist who is well trained. Learn about your nervous system and how to regulate it. Practice deep breathing, mindfulness, and meditation. Get curious about why you do what you do, why you think what you think. Start the work of befriending your body again and coming home to yourself. If trauma robs us of the ability to sense and trust our bodies, which it does, then healing must involve repairing the relationship with your Self.
At large, every generation that has gone before us has just been hurling their unmetabolized trauma onto us. This is called intergenerational trauma, and thanks to the field of epigenetics, we now know that trauma can literally be passed down via gene expression. Can we please, for the love, finally be the generation that moves through our pain and heals? Can we please stop blaming all the world’s problems on everybody else and maybe take a look at ourselves? Can we please stop hurling our hurt onto other people (ahem, racism)?? It’s seriously time to wake up. This work is long overdue.
Resmaa Menakem speaks to this in his book My Grandmother’s Hands, and he takes the words right out of my mouth. “As every therapist will tell you, healing involves discomfort— but so does refusing to heal. And over time, refusing to heal is always more painful.
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