Trauma is any adverse experience that a person is unable to understand, process, or cope with. Far more common than most people believe, trauma is often a product of abuse and neglect in childhood. An ACE (adverse childhood experience) study showed that only one-third of respondents reported no adverse childhood experience. To some extent, most if not all of us will experience some form of trauma in our lives, although the degree of that trauma can vary significantly.
Traumatic experiences are frozen memories that become superimposed on the present moment making it hard to decipher reality. They shut down our bodies, our brains, and our ability to have healthy and fulfilling relationships. Cultures that are trauma ignorant amplify trauma’s effects and contribute to its continuity. Through our examination, we will see that much of the pathology in our society today is born of trauma. Understanding and healing trauma is an essential part of creating a more healthy, whole, and integrated world.
What Causes Trauma
We tend to associate trauma with horrific events such as rape or violence but trauma can also manifest due to emotional abuse or lack of attunement between child and caregiver. According to transpersonal psychologist, Stanislav Grof, even the natural process of birth can be a traumatic experience for some infants. Trauma is most likely to occur in childhood as this is the period in which the human psyche is most sensitive. In many instances, childhood trauma is the most debilitating and treatment-resistant. A child whose emotional needs are neglected experiences levels of pain they cannot handle. Pain that we cannot cope with becomes trauma.
How Trauma Affects Child Development
Traumatized children are more likely to have behavioral problems and difficulty learning. They may struggle to tap into imagination and creative play. There can be a disconnection from the body, physical immobility, and a loss of curiosity.
Trauma often drains the vibrancy out of childhood and can even cut it short. For example, young girls who are sexually abused mature a year and a half earlier than non-abused girls. Sexual abuse sped up their biological clocks and sex hormone production.
Developed by psychologist John Bowlby, Attachment theory states that how we relate to others is greatly impacted by our relationship with our earliest caregiver. Children that are traumatized are likely to develop an unhealthy attachment style which will hurt their ability to have healthy relationships as adults.
How Trauma Affects the Body and the Brain
Trauma causes a disconnection from the body and disintegration of the self. It shuts down the area of the brain responsible for a sense of time, causing the feeling of being stuck in the traumatic experience. Trauma flashbacks can also turn off the part of your brain which helps put your thoughts and feelings into words. This disables a person from creating a coherent self-narrative and results in a dissociation from the traumatized parts of the self.
The Vagus nerve regulates our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. A healthy vagus nerve enables us to more skillfully attune our physiology to our environment. It also helps with maintaining a high HRV (heart rate variability) which is one of the most important measures of a person’s health and well-being. In traumatized people there is a deficiency in the vagus nerve, resulting in unstable physiology and unusually low HRV. This imbalance causes traumatized individuals to be hypervigilant and unable to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Or it makes them too numb to absorb new experiences and recognize any real signs of danger.
Trauma and Memory
Humans cope with emotionally challenging experiences by transforming them into coherent narratives. Our brains automatically and unconsciously alter our memories to better fit our current reality. This is why ordinary memories are imprecise and unreliable.
Traumatic memories are different, they remain unaltered and frozen in time. Ordinary memories are social; they are stories we tell for a purpose. But traumatic memories are incoherent and difficult to put into words. They tend to arise as isolated images, sounds, and sensations that have no context other than fear and panic. Trauma victims can talk about what happened to them but they find it hard to express what they feel inside.
Some traumatic experiences are so painful that they become completely repressed. A person may exhibit classic symptoms of PTSD ( post-traumatic stress disorder) such as intense fear, helplessness, nightmares, insomnia, hypervigilance, irritability, and outbursts of anger without recognizing the underlying trauma. These symptoms are often triggered by words, events, or people that we associate with the original trauma. Many of us find ourselves in situations where we consistently react inappropriately yet fail to recognize the deeper cause of our problematic behavior.
How Trauma Affects Relationships
Trauma almost always makes it difficult to have healthy and fulfilling relationships. To connect with others it is vital to establish safety; something that traumatized people struggle to do. They may feel safe as long as they limit their interactions to superficial conversations but feel threatened by any intimacy or physical contact. The trauma expert Bessel Van Der Kolk writes “communicating fully is the opposite of being traumatized.”The more secretive, closed off, and protected a person is the more likely they are harboring unprocessed trauma.
Trauma’s Role in Human Pathologies
Many of our physical and mental illnesses, as well as behavioral problems, are caused or amplified by unprocessed trauma. Victims of physical or sexual abuse often struggle with obesity, unconsciously putting on weight to feel safe in their bodies. They may gain excessive weight to make themselves less attractive and therefore a less likely candidate for another sexual assault. Many people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder report severe histories of childhood abuse. Childhood trauma also increases the likelihood of violent behavior, criminality, and incarceration in adulthood.
Trauma and Addiction
Tragically, trauma and addiction go hand in hand like Romeo and Juliet. Anywhere from one-third to one-half of severely traumatized people will go on to develop substance abuse problems. As the renowned addiction expert, Gabor Mate says “Not all traumatized people become addicted but all addicted people were traumatized in some way”. We should be careful to note that addiction isn’t restricted to drugs; it can manifest in a wide variety of human behaviors such as shopping, eating, sex, work, social media use, and gambling. Many people use addictive behaviors to run away from the pain of unprocessed trauma.
Trauma and Culture
Societal and cultural beliefs can be major barriers to understanding and healing trauma and in many instances perpetuate it. For example, fascist and militaristic belief systems were built on the ignorance of trauma, fueling wars that caused even more trauma. Cultures with extensive histories of war and oppression often become embedded in ancestral trauma – unhealed or unprocessed trauma that is passed down from one generation to the next. Many traditional, dogmatic beliefs such as “men should not show weakness or emotions” or “women should submit to men” push trauma further into the unconscious, increasing the propensity of physical and mental disease. Creating a trauma-sensitive culture requires educating leaders, influencers, and institutions on the pervasive and debilitating effects of trauma.
How to Heal Trauma
Healing trauma requires reconnecting with the body and reintegrating the traumatic experience into a healthy self-narrative. Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe in their bodies so they become experts at ignoring physical sensations. Learning to observe and tolerate physical sensations that arise when revisiting the past is a crucial part of recovery. If one can maintain a state of relaxation when accessing the traumatic memory, they have the potential to reconsolidate the memory into a healthy self-narrative. Trauma can only survive in a cold, dark, and hostile environment. When we shine the light of awareness on our pain it ceases to be.
Recovery doesn’t happen in isolation but in the context of relationships. Whether it’s with family, friends, therapists, or a spiritual community, finding an environment that provides emotional and physical safety is a prerequisite to healing trauma. Simple games like throwing a ball around helps create safety and attunement with others. Improvisation exercises are another way to connect, play and explore together. Touch can be healing as long as it is gentle. The safest place to touch is the hand and the forearm as that is where others can touch you back.
Some of the therapeutic methods that are used for healing trauma include:
- Eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EDMR) – works by providing rapid access to loosely associated memories and images from the past which helps reframe the traumatic experience
- Internal Family Systems (IFS) – works by integrating fragmented parts of the self-system into a more wholesome structure
- Psychomotor therapy – allows people to safely project their inner experience into a space filled with real people to explore and restructure the unconscious rules they live by.
- Somatic experiencing – works through a process of “pendulation” – gradually moving in and out of sensations and traumatic memories – to release the trapped trauma.
Alternative Treatments for Trauma
Alternative treatments that have proven effective for healing trauma include yoga, mindfulness meditation, and neurofeedback training. Yoga helps trauma victims to gradually get attuned to their bodies. One study showed that a twenty-week yoga program helped chronically traumatized women increase activation in the part of the brain responsible for self-regulation.
Mindfulness meditation helps a person separate thoughts from sensations, gradually reducing their intensity. It also helps increase moment-to-moment self-awareness which is a crucial part of healing trauma. Neurofeedback training helps pull the brain into healthier patterns that are otherwise difficult for traumatized people to access. People respond best to neurofeedback when they can see how the feedback is related to what they are doing.
Treating trauma with traditional and even alternative approaches is often a painful and tedious process. Luckily, a breakthrough treatment is showing promise for healing trauma more efficiently.
MDMA is a psychoactive drug that when used in conjunction with therapy is highly effective for treating PTSD. In a MAPS phase 2 clinical study, 107 participants with PTSD received 3 sessions of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy; within 2 months 56% no longer had PTSD. At the 1-year follow-up, 68% were PTSD-free. The phase 3 clinical study is set to be complete by 2022 and it is estimated that MDMA will be an FDA-approved prescription treatment by 2023.
There is reason to believe that conscious psychedelic use can also be a viable option for healing trauma. Psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient found in psychedelic mushrooms) – which has already proved to be effective for treating depression and anxiety – is now being studied for its efficacy in treating PTSD.
Trauma is any experience that causes a person emotional distress beyond their ability to cope or understand. It doesn’t require an act of violence, in many instances, trauma is born of neglect such as when a parent is too stressed to provide their child with adequate emotional support.
Children with trauma often experience developmental issues and struggle to create healthy relationships as adults. Being able to feel safe with others is vital for creating fulfilling relationships. Yet traumatized people often find themselves out of sync; struggling to establish safety.
Those with unprocessed traumas superimpose their trauma on everything around them making it difficult to decipher the present from the past. Traumatic memories become frozen in time preventing a person from integrating them into a coherent self-narrative. They can be triggered by external stimuli causing the victim’s body to mirror their physiology at the time of the trauma.
Traumatic experiences can become repressed and pushed into the unconscious mind preventing us from understanding why certain situations trigger reactive behavior. Many human pathologies from physical illnesses, psychiatric disorders, addiction, obesity, and criminality are caused or exacerbated by trauma.
Trauma ignorant cultures also play a role in the continuity and amplification of trauma. If we are to minimize and prevent trauma, we must create trauma-sensitive cultures. Healing trauma requires both an individual and collective effort.
A traumatized person’s recovery entails a reconnection with their body and reintegration of their self-narrative. Therapeutic modalities for healing trauma include Eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EDMR), Internal Family Systems (IFS), Psychomotor therapy, and somatic experiencing. Some alternative treatments include yoga, mindfulness meditation, neurofeedback training, and MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. As the trauma pioneer Peter Levine says “Trauma is a fact of life, It does not have to be a life sentence.”