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Redefining Trauma

Years ago I identified myself as the problem in my marriage. I felt that the only explanation for being so repulsed by intimacy was that I must have had some long ago traumatic experience that damaged me; I just needed to fix myself. Back then I also thought I needed to remember what had happened to me in order to “get better”. This was during the early 90’s, a time when the subject of “false memories” was a hot topic and clinicians were under fire for planting “memories” in their clients so they would have something to work with. I spent so many tormented hours of my life thinking to myself, “If only I could remember what happened to me I could heal.” What I didn’t know then was that the energy and effort I was spending on trying to remember some tragic event was energy I could have been directing toward my healing—regardless of whether I remembered anything specific about my past. Back then I didn’t know anything about the concept of trauma.

Since that time I have become what I would call a self- taught specialist in trauma, and I have ushered hundreds of women through the healing of their trauma—regardless of their ability to remember any specific event. This is because trauma is not a traumatic event. And so healing does not need to happen through remembering.

Children in Kenya learn how to breathe

For most people, the concept of “trauma” is attached to a specific event or events. We think of car accidents, sexual assaults or military combat. Some of us think in terms of developmental trauma such as chronic child abuse or neglect. And we all associate the word trauma with the difficult things we see on the news like women who have been held in captivity for months or years. And yes, those are traumatic experiences and they are definitely a major contributing factor to the development of short or long term traumatic stress and PTSD.

But regardless of the origin of trauma, it’s more important to understand the effect that trauma has on the body. Because to heal trauma we must become aware of the sensations in our bodies and use easily accessible tools to navigate through these moments of awareness — until we feel something different.

For example, let’s look at intergenerational trauma. Research is shows that trauma, if not healed, can be passed from generation to generation and recent epigenetic data is showing that changes in brain structure (one of the effects of trauma) can be passed through as many as three generations! That means that if your great grandmother had unresolved trauma (say, she was in the Holocaust) the structure of her brain would have changed. Remarkably that trauma, along with the change in brain structure, could have been passed on to your mother and then on to you. You may have lived your entire life with the impact of your grandmother’s trauma in your brain and body, and you would neither know that this is what was happening nor would you be able to experience anything other than these symptoms—until you started paying attention to the sensations in your body.

The same holds true for any experiences occurring prior to the development of the hippocampus in the brain (usually ages newborn to around three years).

Because children this young cannot understand their experiences through language and cognition, they rely on their bodies to determine if an experience is a threat to their life (the essence of a traumatic experience) or not.

The trouble is, at this stage of development, a threat to life is sometimes just perceived as such by a child—as in the instance of childhood surgeries. A child of eight months for example, is not able to understand that a surgery may be saving her life. Her body registers such an “invasion” as a threat to life—and while this experience is understood in her mind as she grows older, the traumatic body memory (felt as distressing sensation) can live in her body without her having any understanding of what it is.

When I was married and spending hours trying to remember what had happened to me, I sank deep into self-judgment and depression. What else was I to deduce but that I was a damaged person? (This is a common denominator of trauma—whether we remember anything or not—we just feel like damaged goods). Shame, self-judgment and deep depression began to consume every moment of my life. For someone who does remember the traumatic event(s) the same is often true, and very often more profound. These debilitating thoughts and feelings inhibit our recovery, because the stigma-reinforcing nature of this thought pattern intensifies the effects of the trauma, rather than reverses them.

Self-judgment is so detrimental to our neurobiology that it will keep us in a never ending feedback loop of traumatic stress (at worst) or chronic stress (at best).

I’m appealing to all of us today to work toward de-stigmatizing and understanding trauma and helping others to do the same. Some key things to remember are:

  1. Trauma is not necessarily a single event; a traumatic event does not always lead to traumatic stress (there are many determining factors).

  2. A traumatic event is determined by how the individual perceives that event (if someone throws marshmallows at you and your body perceives that to be a threat to survival, it may register in the body as a traumatic event).

  3. The body’s short and long term (re-wiring) response to inherited or current adverse life events is the basis of traumatic stress.

  4. The brain’s negative and self-judgmental thought patterns about the symptoms of this rewiring from trauma perpetuate traumatic stress.

So how do we take charge of our healing and break out of the cycle of traumatic stress? I’m not going to lie, it’s hard work. But having some simple reminders is a start:

  1. Remember that trauma changes the neurobiological wiring in your body. Inherited trauma means you have inherited the neurobiological wiring of your mother, or grandmother (the neurobiology of a fetus develops in mirror to the mother).

  2. Compassionately understand that your body re-wired to ensure that what you experienced (and perceived as a threat to life) would never happen to you again. The symptoms you feel now are the best way your body knows how to remind you of exactly how it felt to go through that horror so that it won’t happen again.

  3. Breathe. I cannot stress the importance of this action enough. Because the trauma response (or even stress response) in the body is activated by the primitive brain—not the cognitive brain—it’s very unlikely that you can “talk your way out” of the response. The most accessible, quick, and powerful way to de-escalate your body’s response is to take long, slow, and deep abdominal breaths. Breathing like this works directly with the primitive brain to deactivate the response and bring a little space to the moment.

  4. Notice the sensations in your body and get curious about them, however (uncomfortable) they may be. Remind your body that you aren’t in danger in the present moment. Noticing is crucial because as you continue to practice this, you will have new experiences. You will notice moments of the absence of the difficult/distressing sensations in your body. This is the moment that healing really begins.

After I left my marriage things got worse before they got better. My work led me deep into the study of trauma, but my life was spent running or hiding from my own. I pushed everyone away from me, it was the only way I felt safe.

Then a beautiful person came into my life who had the patience and compassion for all of the fear I still carried with me. Her acceptance gave me the space to end my quest to remember, to stop avoiding or running from fear and discomfort, and instead to compassionately be with the excruciatingly uncomfortable sensations in my body. Eventually I started to notice new feelings in my body. Good feelings. Free feelings. And while the trauma-associated feelings still visit me, it is the new feelings (along with the absence of the distressing sensations) that help me remember that there is nothing wrong with me—that there is another way to live. And I often grieve the fact that for nearly fifty years I didn’t know that.

I am not damaged; none of us are damaged. Our bodies do what they do because survival is the number one objective of our biology. An understanding of trauma, compassion for our bodies, and the capacity to choose a breath are the foundation for healing trauma in the body and changing our lives in ways we never knew were possible.

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