Understanding Trauma

When people think about trauma, they imagine the absolute worst thing that could happen. People often assume that something does not qualify as trauma unless it is an extreme situation, with an extreme reaction. It’s easy to understand why going to war might be traumatic, but such thinking minimizes the trauma that each of us has faced at some point in our life. As I tell my clients, no one else can define your trauma for you.

I use my experience of being in a tornado as a traumatic event in my life to highlight the ambiguous definition of trauma. The worst thing that actually happened was a small scrape on my chin, made by my own doing when I leapt over the couch in panic, rather than go around it. For months afterwards, I was afraid every time it thundered, even though I loved thunder storms. It took me a full year before I was able to not worry at all when a storm came through. Now, I can enjoy thunderstorms again.

Trauma is not defined by the event; it is defined by the reaction. Two individuals can experience the exact same event and have completely different reactions. I have had clients describe physical abuse and gun violence with less emotion than other clients who have described being teased by a sibling. There are many differences between these individuals that lead to different responses; however, complex trauma is more likely to lead to long term effects.

Each of us has likely experienced simple trauma – one isolated event that was able to be resolved – like the tornado I experienced. Complex trauma happens when a person experiences trauma after trauma after trauma, even if they are different events. With complex trauma, the brain is physically changed. When we experience any potential threat, the amygdala becomes activated to stimulate our initial sense of fight, flight, or freeze. The threat is then sent through the hippocampus, which looks through our memories to provide context to the situation. Have I experienced this before? What happened that time? Finally, the prefrontal cortex, our thinking brain, kicks in and tells us what to do. Each time a person is faced with a potential threat similar to those faced in the past, the amygdala’s fear response gets stronger. Things that aren’t a threat become perceived as possible threats. A person who has been abused might flinch when someone raises their hand. I ran for cover when it thundered.

Such reactions seem logical compared to the trauma that was experienced. However, the response doesn’t always present so cleanly. Often times, the response presents as erratic behavior, including temper tantrums, crying spells, lying, or blaming others to benign triggers. All of these responses can be seen in children and adults. When a child experiences abuse or complex trauma, their basic sense of trust in the world is destroyed. Every interaction they have with anyone is perceived as a threat and can elicit a negative response. A teacher asking a child to solve a math problem, a parent asking a child to put their laundry away, or a spouse asking about weekend plans can all be potential threats.

Loved ones have a difficult time, as they often feel that no matter what they do, they are wrong. To some extent, they are right. There is nothing specific that any other person can do that will undo the layers of trauma that have built up. Individuals who have had a traumatic experience need to have a corrective experience. Just as I needed to encounter a year of thunderstorms with no negative effects, individuals with a trauma history need to have a different experience over and over and over again. The most important aspect for these corrective experiences is feeling empathy.

Empathy seems to be one of the recent buzz words in the mental health world, but it’s importance cannot be over stated. It’s one of the simplest things to do, but often is not done enough. True empathy allows a person to feel heard, understood, and valued for exactly who they are in that moment. It’s more than just ‘putting yourself in their shoes.’ Empathy asks us to connect with a feeling within ourselves to share in the experience with another. Empathy focuses on the feelings underneath the behavior. Rather than getting angry at a child who cut up their brand-new bedspread, empathy would recognize that the child must have been feeling something very strongly. An empathetic response such as, “It looks like you were having a really big feeling, and your bedspread took the brunt of it. Can you tell me about it?” will go a lot farther than, “Get in there and clean up the mess you made!”

Empathy can also look like labeling feelings for another person, which is often useful with children. When a child is having a tantrum, expressing “You’re frustrated that you can’t have your game,” or “I see that you’re sad that you can’t play outside today,” allows the child to know that you understand how they are feeling and that it’s okay to have such feelings. When they have calmed, then we can discuss alternative solutions.

Along with Empathy, Curiosity and Acceptance go a long way in trying to understand certain reactions. What was the person feeling or thinking in the moment? What did they think others were thinking? How did their actions make sense to them? Curiosity is best defined as an intense desire to know another person. Assume that the behavior makes sense and ask the other person to help you see that sense. Then, believe them. Acceptance is about allowing their story to be real for them. It often won’t seem logical. Throw logic out the window and try to find the part that makes sense for that person. When a person argues that the sky is green, ask them to explain why they see it that way. The brain that has experienced complex trauma is looking for ways to reaffirm their experience that no one can be trusted and the world is generally hostile; thus, it’s not uncommon for them to seek out negative interactions through arguing and defiance. Approaching the argument with Acceptance and Curiosity makes their brain pause long enough to consider that there might be another way.

The most important thing to remember is REPETITION! The brain that has experienced trauma can be rewired with consistent, constant, corrective experiences. For parents and spouses, this requires an attitude that embodies these three aspects at all times. The road is long and slow, but the rewards can certainly outweigh the effort.