What is Trauma?
Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like a shattering loss or natural disaster. Experiencing or witnessing a frightening, dangerous, or violent event can overwhelm our body’s natural coping abilities. Other more ubiquitous life events like being bullied, going through a divorce, losing a job, or accidents can also cause a trauma response.
A major trauma separates a person’s world into before and after. I witnessed a trauma at age 10. That day, the world went on as before but it was as though I slipped into an alternate universe where everything seemed foreign — colors were simultaneously too bright and at the same time lost their luster. Sounds and smells that had once been commonplace suddenly seemed menacing. In the months year that followed I found it hard to relate to those whose lives remained intact — didn’t they see the cracks in the firmament that were now so obvious to me?
Jessica Stern, author of Denial: A Memoir of Terror, describes the aftermath of trauma this way: “a soft blanket of numbness descended like snow from the heavens, obscuring and protecting me from terror but with the complete absence of hope.”
Psychologists Robert Stolorow and George Atwood wrote about a young man who had suffered multiple losses of beloved family members who described the world as divided into two groups: the normals and the traumatized ones.
Bessel van der Kolk, a leading researcher in traumatic stress, characterizes trauma as the body continuing to be “stuck in the fight/flight/collapse mode” even after the trauma is over. An important protective factor for being able to digest an overwhelming experience is being around people who love, protect and nurture us when we are down. Alternately, if we are left to suffer alone or worse, if we are abused by those who are supposed to protect us, we are especially in a precarious situation. Another common example is someone experiencing a trauma and they try to get support from family or community but something goes awry — they get the message that they are not allowed to feel what they feel and to know what they know. At this point, a sort of split occurs in the psyche — they are not able to integrate the experience but instead operate as a person divided — one part trying to go on with the motions of living, and a part that goes underground, fixated, reliving the trauma, in an attempt to “fix” the rupture.
Symptoms of trauma can be understood as non-vernal communication from the body attempting to communicate to the outside world, attempting to prove the reality of what happened.
If you are suffering from the aftermath of trauma, psychotherapy with a therapist who specializes in trauma can be helpful. I am certified in EMDR, a therapy that helps people heal from trauma and other distressing life experiences. You are not alone. There is a path to healing.