Trauma is something that happens to us, not something we choose to have happen. It is not a character flaw or a personal weakness. Most people will suffer a personal trauma in their lives. Trauma can be an event or series of events that overwhelms our capacity to cope. Trauma can also be a disease of “the straw that broke the camel’s back”; that is, an apparently minor stressful event can suddenly unbalance a person who has thus far managed to cope with more and more stress.
Trauma affects not only the nervous system, but the brain, hormone production, musculature, blood pressure and other systems in the body. It feels like it’s in our minds, but it’s comprehensively somatic. It also affects the subtle energy body that is recognised in Eastern medicine – the flow of energy in the body.
Not everybody will have ongoing difficulties recovering from trauma. Our ability to cope with traumatic events depends on a whole raft of conditions. Do we have a safe and secure living space and income? Do we have the compassionate understanding of our immediate family and friends? Are we disabled or restricted in our physical abilities? Do we have a community of mates, helpers, volunteers to help us with day-to-day recovery?
Comparing the nature of trauma suffering is not helpful, but it’s what people do. We assume the trauma of torture is worse than the trauma of divorce. We assume the trauma of losing everything in a bushfire is worse than the trauma of losing a job. We assume the trauma of cancer is worse than the trauma of broken limbs. These assumptions are baseless. No one should ever be judged for “not being able to cope”. But sadly, this can and does happen to victims of trauma:- in the family, at work and socially.
Hidden abuse creates the perfect conditions for both trauma and being judged for our trauma. Most domestic abusers don’t look like abusers to the rest of the world. Their victims are not believed. In some cases, the victims are despised for making accusations against a perpetrator. Women, in particular, are not believed in our culture. This creates doubt in the victim, and can create a downward spiral of self-blame, and a trauma response that is magnified and enduring. So trauma can become much more complex even than the original traumatic event.
Trauma is many things, but first and foremost it is about emotional dysregulation.
John Gilbert, a British psychologist proposes an evolutionary model of brain systems, each of which is associated with different brain regions and chemistry. He purports that humans move between these regions in order to regulate emotions, and that an imbalance is often associated with the under-development of the affiliative system.
Let me illustrate the comparison between a balanced emotional regulation system (right) with the trauma brain (left), illustrated below.
This theory illustrates perfectly how important it is for us to ‘feed’ that part of ourselves that can self-soothe, self-care, belong to ourselves, make ourselves safe, keep us connected to other humans who nourish and support us (and avoid connections we find toxic).
If you need help with this, you’ve come to the right place.