Is it possible that everyone you know, including yourself, has been traumatized?!
We pause, take a moment to think through that question, and decide no. The label of ‘trauma’ belongs to those who experience outright abuse, violence, terrible neglect, and emotional brutality. We think trauma is not a regular experience of the average person.
But what if I were to tell you trauma is different than the grotesque examples we call to mind? What if I were to tell you it is actually much closer to home?
You see, trauma is broader than the wartime veteran, the young woman who was raped, and the child who expereinced abuse. These examples are certainly traumatic and I would not want anyone to think I was showing less compassion towards their circumstances by widening the definition of trauma. Those things are truly terrible and no human should have to feel overwhelmed by them.
But the key word here is overwhelmed.
Outside of specific circumstances, the definition of trauma expands to anything that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope and leaves them feeling helpless.
So let me ask you this: have you or the people close to you experienced trauma?
- Job loss.
- Death of someone close.
- The bodily invasive process of being treated for a medical illness.
- The betrayal of a close relationship.
- Being ostracised by a religious community.
- Experiencing harsh criticism from a parent you’ve worked your entire life to please.
- Being mugged.
- Continually helping other people deal with difficult circumstances.
- Not knowing how you will pay for your basic needs.
- Car accidents.
- Lack of closure in a relationship that still feels confusing.
- Working under the constant stress of a demanding boss.
- Living in a major city where awareness of safety is always in your mind.
There is rapidly growing research that shows how incredible our brains and bodies are at protecting us when overwhelmed. We naturally become hypervigilant in order to fight through or run away, or go into a numb state. We do whatever we need to do to survive. And in the stress of what feels like ordinary experiences listed above, our bodies and minds deal with the overwhelmed feeling in this way.
Trauma changes the way we think, feel, and interact with people. We are shaped by it. Often avoidance of the overwhelming stressor results. You try constantly to not think about whatever happened or is happening, but it creeps into the shadows of your brain and into your dreams. Avoidance feels like survival, but it may not be working.
Thankfully trauma is able to be healed and integrated into the story of our lives. It takes much work to relearn that survival tactics are no longer needed, even when they made so much sense at the moment of overwhelm.
As you continue life, I encourage you to absorb this definition of trauma. Carry it with you and evaluate your own life and those experiences of your close relationships with a breath of compassion. Seek out or become a safe person who can hear how an ordinary experience may feel overwhelming and validate what feels true. Seek to not shame yourself and another for not being able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and push through. Trauma shapes us. But in relationship we can heal and reshape and rebound and impact.
Written by therapist Alexandra Hoerr