• What is trauma?

  • Trauma Embodied

  • in the Aftermath

  • trauma transformed

what is trauma?

Trauma is an emotional wound that results from witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event or events - defined by loss of control, powerlessness, and threat of harm or death (Peter Levine).  Many experiences can be traumatic, and the same experience may not result in trauma for everyone who lives it.  Complex interactions among our past experiences, current support systems, sense of general safety, and our neurobiology shape how we respond to potentially-traumatic events.  

There are many types of trauma, and people often experience multiple and intersecting traumas, such as:

  • Dignity violations ~ Disregarding or attacking the inherent worth of a group or individual. (See Dignity, by Dr. Donna Hicks)

  • Historical trauma ~ The “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations emanating from massive group trauma" (Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Braveheart). Historical trauma is common among Holocaust survivors and their descendants, Native communities, African American communities, and others who experience(d) group oppression or violence.

  • Cultural trauma ~ The effect created when attempts are made to eradicate part or all of a culture; practices within a culture that violate the dignity or harm those within a culture.

  • Intergenerational trauma ~ Trauma that is passed from one generation to the next through biology, narrative, and social practices.

  • Structural trauma ~ Trauma created by policies that result in unjust, abusive, discriminatory, or unsafe systems that cause hardship and harm, often on a long-term, continuing basis.

  • Participation-induced trauma ~ Trauma resulting from voluntary or coerced participation in harming oneself or other people or animals or in the destruction of communities or the natural world.

  • Secondary trauma/Vicarious trauma/Compassion fatigue ~ A combination of burnout and being preoccupied with and experiencing trauma symptoms as a result of hearing about or caring for others in trauma.

*Credit to Strategies for Trauma Resilience and Awareness, Eastern Mennonite University 2010,

trauma embodied: what is happening in our bodies, brains and minds during trauma?

When we experience a traumatic event, our bodies mobilize to protect us.  This involves a complex re-distribution of resources that allows us to respond to immediate extreme threat.  This process affects how we experience a traumatic incident both initially and over time.  Some of these processes include:

  • Our amygdala registers that there is a threat and sends an alarm to the hippocampus;

  • The hippocampus diverts resources from memory consolidation and storage to defense;

  • Cortisol and adrenaline flood our bodies to mobilize us for action;

  • Blood rushes out of our internal organs to our arms, hands, and legs so that we can flee or fight;

  • Depending on our socialization, trauma history, and whether fleeing or fighting is possible or helpful in the current situation, our brains might enable us to mentally and emotionally survive the immediate threat by freezing, or dissociating. This might feel like leaving one's body or losing some or full conscious awareness of the present situation.

[Trauma] is not just an event that took place ... in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on the mind, brain, and body.
— Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., The Body Keeps the Score

what happens in the aftermath of trauma?

Experiencing trauma is shocking to entire human and social systems.  Our bodies and minds are brilliantly designed to enable us to survive traumatic experiences.  All of these responses are normal and adaptive. However, they can lead to greater challenges and more suffering if traumatic structures persist and we do not (re)establish safety and transform our trauma into holistic individual and community resiliency.

trauma can lead to changes in our bodies

  • Re-experiencing through flashbacks or bodily sensations

  • Numbing or dissociation, feeling disconnected or ‘shut down’

  • Hyper-arousal, difficulty relaxing, anxiety

  • Sleep disturbance

  • Sadness, lack of motivation

  • Memory difficulties

  • Damage to various body systems, leading to immune disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, diabetes, high blood pressure, disease, memory challenges, among others

trauma can affect our identities as well

  • Feelings of shame, humiliation, helplessness, fear, anger

  • Sense of alienation or inherent difference from others

  • Solidification of in-group membership and bonding

  • Identification of a common enemy

  • ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ thinking                                                                               

trauma can shape our societies

  • Loss of trust in leaders, other community members, and the social order

  • Helplessness or apathy

  • Aggression as a method of social change

  • Harmful social patterns, such as domestic violence, crime, aggression, neglect, child or animal abuse, destruction of property or the natural world

trauma can also affect our relationships

  • Loss of trust and intimacy

  • Over-dependence on others

  • Re-enactment of trauma

  • Isolation

  • Assumption that others intend to do us harm (or inevitably will)

Trauma is only one part of a person or a community’s story. We carry trauma alongside beauty, joy, laughter, determination, play - the whole range of what it means to be human.

trauma transformed

Experiencing trauma forces us outside of our zones of comfort and safety and requires us to adapt in order to survive.  Consequently, individuals and communities who have experienced trauma often develop expert capacities to cope with adversity and to thrive in unlikely circumstances.  People who transform trauma into resiliency are often the best advocates, service providers, problem-solvers, crisis-managers, and strategic planners.


Post-traumatic growth may look like:

  • A sense of connectedness to other beings

  • A sense of the preciousness or sacredness of life

  • Deepened empathy and compassion

  • The ability to see behind 'problematic behaviors' to the whole person, story, and needs

  • Motivation to protect, empower, and serve others

  • Increased complexity of problem-solving

  • Heightened ability to read others and assess situations

  • Increased sense of personal and/or community strength

Practicing yoga [TCTSY] has given me hope.…It’s been a useful practice and tool to develop those things which has led me to think I don’t have to be that person that I always thought I was just destined to be, that I could actually change some things, and become the person that I’ve wanted to be. The trauma doesn’t have to define me, although the trauma will always be part of me. I can change.
— TCTSY participant