Why It Matters
The subject of trauma is a powerful and deep topic that may seem outside your scope as a researcher or whistleblower. But due to the prevalence of trauma and the likelihood that your message is re-traumatizing to some, it bears consideration.
Of primary importance is the following assertion that you can test for yourself to see if it resonates: traumatized people cannot be allies in the fullest sense of the word. That is, an individual may have the best of intentions but unresolved trauma will get in the way. It can cause a person to avoid a topic. It can cause a person to be obsessed with a topic without understanding why. It can cause a person to be overwhelmed, to be unfeeling, to be unable to hear and process the truth. Trauma begs to be healed.
It makes sense for you, as a speaker on challenging topics, to understand trauma very well, and to be able to offer suggestions to those who may be open to seeking healing. Even if you don’t go so far as to offer suggestions, consider this: trauma healing requires a feeling of safety. If a traumatized person is being triggered or is in a state of generalized fear or anxiety, healing can’t happen.
Trauma isn’t rare. It may be more accurate to think of “the walking wounded” living among us. Thus, it pays to remember that however individuals may or may not respond to you, they could have more going on under the surface than meets the eye. Whether or not a trauma survivor is fully conscious of the unresolved trauma they’re carrying, it’s likely they experience uncomfortable reactions to particular triggers.
And what is required for trauma healing? You have probably gone through some form of trauma healing and can speak to your experience. We might sum
When a person experiences a psychologically overwhelming experience, we call this trauma. Human beings react to trauma in numerous specific ways that manifest physically, mentally and emotionally.
When we feel… threatened, our bodies naturally charge up for fight or flight. If neither of those two options are available, we fall back to the third option, to freeze—to trick a predator into thinking we’re dead, and giving us a potential opportunity for escape later… Once it is safe, an animal will eventually shake and tremble, discharging all of that fight or flight energy. However, in trauma, we stay stuck in freeze…. [We aren’t] able to process, discharge and integrate the experience.– Peter Levine PhD
- Trauma is an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing, causing psychological overwhelm. (Stephen Joseph PhD)
- Trauma is “an overwhelm of our natural defensive responses that creates something like an injury in our autonomic nervous system, which affects its ability to self-regulate.” (Peter Levine PhD)
- The autonomic nervous system (ANS), which governs breathing, heart rate and the endocrine (hormone) system is the home of the so-called stress response or Fight-Flight-or-Freeze Response.
When a stressor is manageable and short-lived, the ANS automatically prepares a person to respond to a threat and then return to a state of calm once it has passed. In the case of trauma, the system is thrown into a state of chronic imbalance.
- Trauma overwhelms the individual’s ability to cope or integrate the ideas and emotions involved in the experience. It “disconnects us from all sense of resourcefulness or safety or coping or love.” (Trauma Recovery and Tara Brach)
Trauma radically changes people… in fact they no longer are “themselves.” It is excruciatingly difficult to put that feeling of no longer being yourself into words.– Bessel van der Kolk MD
What Causes Trauma?
- Anything experienced as threatening can be interpreted by the body-mind as trauma. (Mark Banschick, MD)
- Trauma may involve a single experience such an assault or a severe auto accident or natural disaster. Or it may be the result of repeated events such as psychological, physical or sexual abuse.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a particular diagnosable disorder that may be short-term (lasts less than three months) or chronic. It may also be experienced with a delayed onset.
- Clinically, PTSD requires 1) exposure to a potentially traumatizing event, 2) persistent re-experiencing, 3) persistent avoidance, 4) persistent hyperarousal and 5) duration of symptoms for more than one month.
- “Trauma survivors with PTSD feel chronically afraid that the event is happening or is going to happen.” (source)
- PTSD is a subset within the topic of trauma response. But please note that when you are reviewing various sources, you may see statistics and information speaking specifically to diagnosed PTSD only. And in other cases, particularly in casual use, the term PTSD may incorrectly be used to refer to the trauma response in general.
- The terms “Complex Trauma,” “Complex PTSD” or “Developmental Trauma Disorder” are used to refer to the results of repeated, extreme trauma, often experienced by children.
- “Some authors have used the term ‘chronic PTSD’ when the term ‘Complex PTSD’ is likely more accurate.” (source)
- Most individuals with Complex Trauma experienced long-term traumatization as children, damaging the development of their sense of themselves and of others.
- See also: Trauma-Based Victimization
A review of World Mental Health surveys in 24 countries (n = 68,894) found that 70% of respondents experienced lifetime traumas, with exposure averaging 3.2 traumas per capita. (source)
- In the U.S., 61% of men and 51% of women report exposure to at least one lifetime traumatic event, and 90% of clients in public behavioral health care settings have experienced trauma. (source)
- Approximately 4% of men and 10% of women in the US will meet criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in their lifetime with the numbers “considerably higher” among war veterans, inner city residents, political refugees, and children and adolescents who have been exposed to traumatic events. (source)
Beyond direct experience of traumatic events, the mass media has assaulted people with relentlessly repeating tales of harrowing death and destruction, and impending catastrophe.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 6 women, and one in 33 men, will be the victim of rape or attempted rape. Every 98 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted, as reported by RAINN (the Rape and Incest National Network.) 94% of rape survivors will experience symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to the US Veterans Affairs Center for PTSD. Of course, these are just estimates – a large number of assaults go unreported.– Julie Grossman
The Effects of Trauma
Traumatized people live in a world that’s different from people who have not been traumatized. Their world looks different in every conceivable measure, whether it’s brain or mind or body. It’s a different planet.–Bessel van der Kolk MD
- A person exposed to trauma will experience elevated stress hormones and the nervous system takes much longer to return to balance. Also with trauma, the stress response “spikes quickly and disproportionately” in response to mild stress.
- The prolonged stress response caused by trauma contributes to such wide-ranging problems as memory and attention issues, irritability, depression, hyper-vigilance, angry outbursts and sleep disorders. A person may be plagued with nightmares and intrusive thoughts, reliving the trauma over and over again.
- Further, a person may suffer from long-term health issues, “depending on which body system is most vulnerable in a particular individual.” (Bessel van der Kolk MD)
- Trauma causes people to lose the feeling of being embodied.
- Trauma changes a person’s brain in a way that makes communication of what one is thinking and feeling more difficult.
- Brain areas that transmit feelings of terror shut down, causing the survivor to also lose the ability to register other emotions and sensations that are the foundation for self-awareness.
- Trauma causes people to lose their sense of purpose and direction.
- Traumatized people experience many painful physical symptoms. “What I could not know until I experienced it was how all-encompassing, how physical the experience of PTSD is, and how long it takes to heal from it.”
- Trauma affects the flow of energy in the body, creating abnormal sensation or lack of sensation.
Flashbacks & Triggers
People who suffer from flashbacks often organize their lives around trying to protect against them. They may compulsively go the gym to pump iron, numb themselves with drugs, or try to cultivate an illusory sense of control… Constantly fighting unseen dangers is exhausting and leaves them fatigued, depressed, and weary.– Bessel van der Kolk MD, The Body Keeps the Score
Here we consider the topic of disclosure for the purposes of sharing information. This is not the same as a specific healing practice of acknowledging or naming a trauma as part of trauma processing. Here we are referring to a person who shares what happened for other reasons:
- A person who discloses trauma privately or publicly may be doing so for personal reasons, such as sharing with an intimate partner.
- Or the survivor may be informing others to provide information or testimony about who or what caused the trauma in an effort to bring about justice and/or to decrease the chance that others will experience the same harm.
What is trauma porn, you say? It is the exploitative sharing of the darkest, creepiest, most jarring parts of our trauma specifically for the purpose of shocking others. It can be engaging for some non-survivors because of the shock value, but it is not only unhelpful to survivors, it is often actually harmful to us because it can trigger our PTSD.– Alisa Zipursky
The process of disclosure can be extremely painful for the teller.If the victim has not completely healed the trauma, it may be excruciating and potentially re-traumatizing. Even if the teller has long since healed the trauma, others may react in dysfunctional, negative or harmful ways, thereby causing added pain for the teller. Mathew Remski explains:
My colleague Theodora Wildcroft… helped me at least begin to see why we don’t listen to trauma survivors… Theo said, “I can’t speak my truth without hurting other people.” I’m slowly starting to get it. The person who has disclosed their trauma is a social liability… What they have to report about what happened to them… shames that entire community. The denial is the clue. Those who are able to get past the simple denial phase must ask whether they were dissociative or complicit, or both. The trauma survivor announces, for the collective: “No, we are not okay.”… It’s really hard to hear what [trauma survivors] have to say. It resonates too close to the bone of our own memory, or it violates the visions of general goodness that we’ve come to cherish. It shows us more clearly the differences in our experience, and how much more challenging love is than what we thought. It’s really hard for another reason that Anneke Lucas told me about: “Sometimes we can’t acknowledge the trauma of others,” she said, “until we acknowledge the ways in which we ourselves have been traumatized.” Which brings us back to… the fear of what Wildcroft and others call “vicarious trauma.”Really listening is crucially hard, because it demands being impacted, sharing in disgust in such a way that it flips into empathy, into being-with, into saying “I do have room for what you are saying. You do have room here. I don’t need to centre [the disclosure on] my ideas or my experience, or my hopes, or disguise my shame… I’ll let you lead.”– Matthew Remski, Why We Don’t Listen to Trauma Survivors
Committing to Being a Better Listener
It’s indisputable that many people have experienced severe and sometimes unfathomable traumas. We as a collective are seriously inadequate in acknowledging these traumas, and responding in a healthy way. Understanding trauma can lead us toward planetary healing and growth. How can we each do better? In the article above, Mathew Remski provides a number of keys:
- Recognize our reactions, our unwillingness to listen, and why.
- Be willing to face our own unacknowledged or unhealed traumas, and become aware of how they limit our ability to accept the truths presented by others.
- Be willing to be impacted.
- Endeavor to completely, patiently, truly listen.
- Commit to “being-with” without making it about your own experience, without trying to orchestrate how the person discloses and without trying to fix anything.
Strategies for Consideration
This is a powerful and deep topic that may seem beyond your capability to impact. But your awareness and acknowledgement may contribute to the foundation that is needed for more people to take the next step in their healing journey.
- Acknowledge trauma, its effects and the signs of unhealed trauma.
- Educate yourself on ways to avoid common triggers in the people you’re speaking to.
- Commit to being a better listener.
- Give specific techniques and options to help the listener who may suspect they have unhealed trauma.*
- As appropriate, share (or point to) your own success story.
*There are numerous successful, well-researched trauma-healing techniques now available that address the body and nervous system response.
Sources & Resources
- Banschick, Mark M.D. — Somatic Experiencing: How Trauma Can Be Overcome
- Brach, Tara — Definition of Trauma
- Bullock, Grace Ph.D., YogaUOnline — Somatic Experiencing: Free Your Body to Free Your Mind
- Grossman, Julie, Yogi Times — 3 Ways to Make Your Yoga Class More Trauma Sensitive
- Integration Samhsa — Trauma
- Joseph, Stephen Ph.D. — What is Trauma?
- Kessler, Ronald et al. — Trauma and PTSD in the WHO World Mental Health Surveys
- Levine, Peter— On Somatic Experiencing: A Mind-Body Approach To Healing
- Malcolm, Lynn — Healing Trauma Through Mind and Body
- Remski, Matthew — Why We Don’t Listen to Trauma Survivors
- Van der Kolk, Bessel M.D.— The Body Keeps the Score — 2015 book
- Zipursky, Alisa – What is trauma porn, and why the hell are we asked to write it?