Trauma seems to be a buzzword these days. With trigger warnings and a seemingly heightened need for political correctness, it’s popping up everywhere for a lot of folks.   

The fact that trauma is being spoken about more than ever is not without reason.  

People could be catching on to one of the best kept secrets in medical history.  

Is it possible that trauma is so prevalent that we have all been affected by it? Is it possible that the biggest cause of disease, chronic pain, and mental illness remains a secret in the medical community? More and more reputable doctors are speaking up and saying yes. Yes that trauma lies at the root of much human suffering and even though there is more than enough science to prove it, the truth remains mostly unspoken.  

If you want to read more on the subject, here are a few good places to start: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van de Kolk[1], When the Body Says No by Dr. Gabor Mate[2] and Waking The Tiger by Peter Levine[3]

 

But what exactly is trauma?  

On their website, www.camh.ca, CAMH, Canada’s largest mental health teaching hospital, defines trauma as: “Trauma is a term used to describe the challenging emotional consequences that living through a distressing event can have for an individual”.

The key here is that trauma refers to the emotional consequence of the distressing event. The trauma is not actually attached to the event which caused it, but instead to the emotional consequence of the event.

So while we may think of trauma as needing to be attached to something absolutely horrific that happened to a person, the truth is that absolutely any event can trigger a person into a trauma response.

An easy to understand example from Gabor Maté’s work goes as follows; a person could be driving and run into a black garbage bag. If that person were to have seen the bag and saw that it was just a bag, they are not very likely to have a trauma response.

Say, however, that the same person was to drive into that same black garbage bag, but they mistaken it for a black dog. This could potentially cause a trauma response.  Even after realizing later that the object they thought was a dog was actually a bag, the response in their body would be exactly the same as if they had actually run over a dog.

This trauma response is called getting triggered. In this example, driving into a black garbage bag would have triggered the person driving the car. 

The list of physiological responses to being triggered is near endless and can vary in intensity and duration. In other words, someone can be deeply distressed and find themselves having panic attacks for a few days or weeks or can have debilitating pain in their bodies that could potentially last a lifetime.

Even a seemingly common emotional overreaction can be a response to trauma. Those moments where you yourself may have reacted in a way much greater than the situation called for, perhaps even surprising yourself, could in fact be linked to unresolved trauma.

Dr Gabor Maté, in his series The Wisdom of Trauma[4], names trauma as: Not what happens to you, but what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you.

That’s why two people can have the exact same situation happen to them and have two completely different reactions to it. It’s not about what happened to a person. It’s about how what happened affected that particular person. 

That’s one of the funny things about trauma. It’s not something that happens in the mind. It happens in our bodies. So no matter how much we may think that something shouldn’t bother us, our bodies may have other plans. We can’t mentally think trauma away. We can’t decide or convince ourselves that something shouldn’t bother us.  

Trauma is a physiological process, not a mental one.

But why is it that something triggers us and not another person? What makes it so something causes one person’s body to react and not others?

Epigenetics could have an answer. Mark Wolynn describes in the book: It Didn’t Start With You, a study which was done on mice[6], just a few years ago and published in the scientific journal Nature. In the study, scientists introduced the smell of cherry blossoms into the mice’s cage. At the same time as the smell was introduced, the mice would receive an electric shock. Understandably, after a while, the mice began to fear the smell of cherry blossoms. Scientists studied how this fear response affected the mice and took note of it.

What was interesting was that the mice’s offspring had the same physiological response as their parent (specifically male parent) did when introduced to the same scent, even though they had never received any shock. This trait was even passed down to the next generation.  

This finding is certainly interesting to humans since we share 99% of the same genetic makeup as mice.

So theoretically, this means that your body could potentially have the same physiological stress response as something that would have stressed your grandparent, even if the stressor has never been a threat to you.

Another reason that one person could be affected by an event, while another person isn’t, could be the degree to which the person had to deal with the event on their own. Dr. Gabor Mate goes on to explain that the fundamental trauma is disconnect. 

“The disconnect from the nurturing adults that allowed abuse to happen in the first place [in the case of childhood trauma due to abuse] is the actual root cause of the trauma.” The inability to process what happened with someone or to find comfort in another person is what causes the body to “hold onto” the pain rather than let it pass.

In essence, if a person is not able to find the compassion they need, then their physiological symptoms to the triggering stressor could persist indefinitely.

So the next time you find yourself saying that you shouldn’t feel bad about something because others have it so much worse, you may want to think twice about that and question what’s actually true in your body, rather than your thoughts. Say, for example, you have a car accident. You’re physically ok with only minor whiplash, but the event shook you. For days later, you can’t help but find yourself replaying the events over and over in your mind.

You may find yourself saying things to yourself like: “Get over yourself, you’re fine. Consider yourself lucky, things could have been so much worse.”

But these thoughts are highly unlikely to help you since all you are doing is trying to rationally think your way out of physiological processes.

And what if we lived in a world where we knew that we were all traumatized?

What if we treated each other, and ourselves, as traumatized people instead of vilifying people?

Maybe the next time we saw someone lose their temper, we could see them with compassionate eyes.

Maybe the next time we get filled with rage, ourselves, we could take a step back and question where that strong emotion might have come from.

 

[1] van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking.

[2] Maté, G. (2003). When the body says no: The cost of hidden stress. Toronto: A.A. Knopf Canada.

[3]Levine, P. A. (1997). Waking the tiger: healing trauma : the innate capacity to transform overwhelming experiences. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books.

[4] Science and Nonduality. (2021). Wisdom of Trauma. United States. 

[5] Dias, B., Ressler, K. Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations. Nat Neurosci 17, 89–96 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.3594

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