by, Jessica Mariglio
Why do we experience trauma?
Evolutionarily speaking, we aren’t the strongest or the fastest creatures to ever roam the world. Our young are extremely vulnerable to the elements and predators. The human brain recognized this vulnerability and responded by developing an intricate built-in system that is pretty great at detecting threats and danger. We can detect danger in milliseconds and respond in a variety of ways to increase our chance of survival. When we feel overwhelmed, our bodies protect us by initiating several built-in instinctual responses such as fight, flight, or freeze.
As humans evolved, our ability to override our instinctual responses also advanced. We developed the capacity to think deeply, observe and analyze our emotions, and question our assumptions. In general, this is a great thing—we strengthened the parts of our brains that make us uniquely human and have allowed us to create strong social systems and major progress in the quality of life. Unfortunately, this ability to override instinct has gotten so advanced that sometimes in its efforts to keep us safe, our brain ends up preventing us from the necessary activity to process and leads us into debilitating levels of anxiety, obsessive thinking, and avoidance.
What is Trauma?
But what is trauma, exactly? The diagnostic manual used in psychology does not label trauma itself as a mental illness or disease. The only mention currently of trauma diagnostically is in the criteria for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, with a very specific and narrow set of criteria. Trauma itself is not so much a disease, but rather a set of biological and psychological symptoms that wreak havoc on daily functioning and present-time experiences.
Trauma, coming from the Greek word for “wound” can be defined as any unprocessed wound or series of wounds— physical, psychological, emotional, sexual or even economic that occurred in the past and have an impact on the present. Traumatic events can be large, single-incidents or a series of events. The importance is not so much in defining the nature of the event itself to see if it “qualifies”, but rather relationally understanding the symptoms that arise from the past impacting perceptions of the safety and control in the present.
It is important to note that a body’s trauma response can be activated even by the perception of threat. As humans are relational creatures, the threat of abandonment, neglect, or rejection can be perceived as dangerous. These relational ruptures, if not repaired or soothed, can impact our physical well-being over time, leading to chronic illness or early death. If you’re struggling with relational trauma, you may notice that harmful past experiences continue to be played out again and again in present relationships. It may feel like the past is happening right now, and you are trapped in a loop.
In other words, traumatic symptoms are not caused by the event itself. They are caused by the frozen residue of energy that has been released in response to a threat but not adequately discharged or processed.
As Peter Levine writes, “trauma need not be a life sentence.” In fact, the very same systems that lead to much of the symptomatic suffering hold the energies, potentials, and resources needed for transformation and release.
Many people who live with trauma have difficulty remaining present, and report feeling overwhelmed by their past experiences and emotions. Somatic practices such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and Somatic Experiencing are extremely useful in helping the mind and body come back online to functioning. Somatic approaches are particularly useful in reprocessing trauma, as they work on the non-verbal parts of the brain. There is no reason to try to make sense of traumatic memories or experiences with somatic healing; a cohesive story about the past does not matter; we simply practice noticing what comes up for us in each passing moment. It often leaves clients feeling more calm, safe and less overwhelmed in their present-time experience.
At Mindfulpath, we know that healing can only happen when we are safe, connected, and mindful of the present moment. To learn more about practices that help that can help ease the suffering associated with trauma or to experience them for yourself, check out our unique set of services to assist you on your healing journey.
Levine, P. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing trauma: the innate capacity to transform overwhelming experiences. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Marich, J & Dansiger, S. (2017). EMDR Therapy and Mindfulness: for trauma-focused care. New York, NY: Springer Publishing.