What is trauma?
in the Aftermath
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, http://www.emu.edu/star
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.
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
Sadness, lack of motivation
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
Assumption that others intend to do us harm (or inevitably will)
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