Trauma, from my clinical experience, can be most easily defined as any experience encoded in terror. Why, you ask, would experiencing something while in a state of terror be one of the greatest threats to our emotional well-being and subsequently debilitate us in our efforts to have healthy relationships? See, when you encode something in terror, for the physical protection of your body, your lid flips. More specifically, your brain shoves all the things you’ve learned in your life out of the way (many of them irrelevant to keeping you safe in a moment, like your address, your kids name, how to cook pasta), and gets hyperfocused on the danger or the task at hand. You don’t need access to the information in your prefrontal cortex, so your brain does this very primitive, helpful thing and it flips all your ability to make sense of it, or truly feel it, right out of the way. This helpful skill, especially when you’re really going to die or are in significant danger, gives us an easier access to your limbic system, where those most primitive and protective emotional regulation skills to keep you alive—fight, flight, and freeze— can be accessed.
After the threat has passed, however, there is a necessary step in making sense of that experience once you have returned to safety, calmed the body, and your prefrontal cortex has come back on. The process gets messed up when there’s nowhere to come land from the traumatic experience and reintegrate the emotions. Big emotions stay “stuck”, if you will, in that process and sometimes feel as though they’ve never really ended – because from a neurological perspective, they haven’t. And you can well imagine, if you stack a few of these difficult experiences on top of one another (or years and years of these experiences on top of one another), just what the ramifications might entail. Sometimes, children live in this heightened state of arousal for many of their waking hours; families have lived generations largely in this state; or people work entire careers without having much opportunity to integrate these intense emotional experiences. One of my favorite insights, so eloquently explained by psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, goes like this: “Managing your terror all by yourself gives rise to another set of problems—dissociation, despair, addictions, a chronic sense of panic, and relationships that are marked by alienation, disconnections, and explosions.” Whew! That’s a heavy string of words, which carries with it the significant role this thing called trauma—and the isolation that’s often associated with many people’s experiences with trauma—plays in the most disconnected parts of our world.
In fact, many traumatic experiences in relationships, including things like abuse, infidelity, and divorce, involve betrayal by another person. Workplace burnout has also been identified as a significant price to pay that I think deserves its own discussion (stay tuned). Although these are not particularly light considerations, I would say it’s a combination of abuse, betrayal, and workplace stress that presents most frequently in my office. Just a reminder: even as I write these words, I’m assuming you will be thinking, “I thought this was going to be an uplifting read.” But stick with me. Because we can no longer Mary Poppins the fuck out of this “we’re fine, I’m fine” bullshit. We can’t address what we don’t first acknowledge. And I’ve never yet met a single soul who hasn’t gone through a little hell. Yes, some of us have way more difficult stories than others. But the notion of comparative suffering—where we think that others might have it worse than us or that our story doesn’t deserve to be told—often keeps us from identifying our own story; or, conversely, believing we can rise if we’re on the worst end of it all. We must hold space for the hard stuff first, however that looks for you.