Trauma* is an overwhelming threat that you don’t know how to deal with, says world-renowned trauma expert Dr Gabor Maté. So trauma is not the bad things that happen to you, but rather what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you.
Fundamentally, trauma is a disconnection from the self. Why do we get disconnected? Because it’s too painful to feel the pain. It’s overwhelming. That then becomes a lifelong dynamic. I no longer know how to deal with emotions. It means that in relationships when I feel a bit hurt, I immediately withdraw so I don’t have to feel those emotions that I don’t know what to do with. So there’s a disconnect.
Trauma also affects how our brains develop. Certain key brain circuits that have to do with how we react and respond and regulate ourselves, how we handle stress, how we interact with other people, how much empathy and insight we have, and how much compassion we have. These functions of the mid-frontal cortex are limited and constricted by trauma because we now know that the brain develops in interaction with the environment.
So let’s take a look at your childhood:
- In the first 18 years of your life, did a parent or another adult in the household often or very often swear at you, insult you, put you down or humiliate you?
- Did a parent or another adult in the household often push, grab, slap, or throw something at you?
- Did a parent or another adult in the household often or very often hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
- Did you often feel that no one in your family loved you?
You see, if a parent or adult is terrorizing you, as a child you can only make sense of it in one of two ways: He’s a bad person or he hates me OR I’m a bad person and I’m unlovable. And, as children, we always go with the later.
When the pain is there and there’s no one to share it with – and as children we have very limited resources to deal with pain – what we do is disconnect from ourselves. Because ultimately, as Polyvagal Theory psychiatrist Dr Stephen Porges says, safety isn’t just the absence of threat; it’s the presence of connection.
And that’s the trauma. We were completely alone as a child.
So children don’t get traumatized because they get hurt. Children get traumatized because they’re alone with the hurt.
Dr Maté explains that these are very scary experiences and there’s no way to know when they’re going to happen again, which puts us into a hypervigilant state to protect ourselves. And our body and mind are constantly scanning for threat because we are perpetually stressed and anxious so that we survive. Our behavior today is a direct result of the trauma that we’ve experienced.
Are you free? Are you conscious? Are you making decisions based on full awareness? Or are you driven by unconscious dynamics that you’ve inherited or that you developed as a response to childhood trauma? Because insofar as we’re not conscious, we’re not free.
Here’s the thing: we don’t respond to what happens. We respond to our perception of what happens. Like the Buddha said, “With our minds we create the world.” And of all the possible interpretations, we default to the worst one.
So that’s the learning. That’s the beauty of healing: It’s that when we reframe things and we actually see the source of the pain within ourselves, all of the sudden that’s liberating. Because guess what. If you’re feeling a particular way because someone did this or didn’t do that, then that makes you a victim. But if you see that you’re the source, now you are powerful.
It’s through a dynamic, emergent process of confrontation with the truth that solutions will arise. Trauma involves a lifelong pushing down of feelings and a tremendous amount of energy goes into not feeling the pain. As Dr Peter Levine says, “Trauma is a fact of life. We can’t escape it. But the good news is trauma doesn’t have to be a life sentence.”
If you need help processing your trauma, please reach out to me.
*Please note that this piece does not refer to trauma caused by war, natural disasters, crimes, a school shooting, a serious car accident, the death of a parent, rape, sexual abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, witnessing death, a life-threatening illness, and more.