Everyone Is Talking About Trauma, But What Is It Truly?

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Years ago as I started schooling to become a trauma coach, I was struck by how many types of trauma there are and the aftereffects that are so pervasive throughout our lives. But how do we define trauma? Is it just an event, like a car accident or a hurricane? Or as so many of us have experienced, is it consistent and frequent events, like childhood abuse or emotional neglect?

It’s actually all of these things. The definition of trauma that I align myself with is about the individual, not that the events aren’t important as they absolutely are, but the impact of trauma is based on where the person is at emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually. Let me give you an example.

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In Pete Walker’s book, Complex PTSD- From Surviving to Thriving, he talks about a first-grade student who witnessed the devastation of 9/11 from his classroom at school. This child had ‘good enough’ parenting, a term coined by Donald Winnicott, an English pediatrician, and psychoanalyst, where parents are not perfect, can admit fault, and take responsibility for their actions, and the child is loved and emotionally supported.

When the trauma of 9/11 presented itself to this child, he had a better ability to process through it, because of his ‘good enough’ parenting. He drew a picture that he showed to Pete Walker, of the buildings and the planes crashing into it, with people jumping and falling from the building but he drew a trampoline at the bottom to save them. He had processed through the trauma and come up with a solution, in case such a horrific event occurred again.

Now a child who had sustained developmental trauma, he/she may have not been able to process the event and what he/she had seen, and the trauma could have remained present, affecting his mental & physical health and well-being for years to come.

So let’s define trauma:

A circumstance or event is traumatic to an individual if it meets the following three criteria:

— The individual feels they are powerless to control the circumstance or event

— The circumstance or event intensely frightens the individual

— The circumstance or event changes the individual’s beliefs about themselves, the world, and their interactions with the world (Source: IAOTRC)

Trauma is defined from the perspective of the individual. A circumstance or event that might be traumatic for one individual might not be for another.

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Temperament, prior experience with trauma, and level of resilience all play a significant role in someone’s individual response to a potentially traumatic event or circumstance. When a new trauma is added onto a strand, i.e. childhood abuse/neglect, then date rape in teen years for example, it knocks the person down further than another person who didn’t have childhood abuse/neglect. Trauma is cumulative.

Trauma can emotionally and developmentally freeze us, we can develop hypervigilance and other symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress, disconnecting from our emotional state and bringing into adulthood such things as black-and-white thinking, learned helplessness, toxic shame, and using denial and chaos as survival tools.

There are two kinds of trauma:

  • Environmental: car accidents, natural disasters, medical procedures, combat/war
  • Interpersonal- in the course of any relationship/contact with any person as sexual abuse, domestic violence, emotional abuse

So the need and absolute necessity of looking at our trauma and reaction to it is imperative to future mental & physical health, toxic shame, struggles with addiction and codependency, communication skills, and the ability to love self and others.

When we gently look at the trauma and the subsequent adaptive coping mechanisms, then and only then can we work toward healing.

Source: Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Pete Walker, An Azure Coyote Book ©2014. www.pete-walker.com