A child sustains a major fall.
Someone is in a car accident.
The power goes out for several days.
In studying the nature of trauma, it is important to appreciate that not every dramatic event, time of loss and grief, moment of fear or upset is traumatic for someone.
Our minds, brains and bodies are equipped to sustain the shock of many moments in which there are feelings of fear, concern, frustration or agitation. In those moments our blood pressure can go up, our heart can beat more rapidly, or we can feel a rush of energy that involves the fight or flight response. While these sometimes are the symptoms of a traumatic event, real trauma involves experiencing something much more important, deep and overwhelming.
A major fall in which there is not only excruciating pain, but perhaps terror around feeling isolated or abandoned, having to somehow survive on one’s own, is more likely to be a trauma to that person than a fall that, while painful, involves the realization that nothing too serious has happened and recovery is imminent, and there are people around who can help.
Car accidents can be very frightening, but when people quickly realize that nothing too serious has happened and there are no major injuries, the mind and brain often shift right into a “what do we do now” mode of action, where the person takes control of the situation and therefore is not overwhelmed by fear and helplessness. Often any real trauma is avoided when the person can easily contact a loved one or colleague for assistance or reassurance.
Sometimes in natural disasters, like hurricanes, the power can go out for hours or even days. While this can be very inconvenient and sometimes a little scary if you can’t find your flashlight right away, it is usually more annoying, aggravating or distressing than it is traumatizing. Deep down you know it is not a crisis but an inconvenience, that it is temporary, that you are not in any real danger, and you can still think about what to do to take care of yourself. If on the other hand you believe your life and the lives of those who are important to you are at risk, if the fear or even terror of something worse happening goes on for an extended period of time, the experience might be encoded by your mind and brain as a trauma. Even then, once the power is restored, the trauma of the experience can readily resolve as the mind and brain is able to regain a sense of safety.
Significant, deeply impacting trauma occurs when someone feels their life or the life of a loved one is in true danger, when they are feeling abandoned, isolated, helpless, hopeless and overwhelmed by terror. These kinds of trauma often have the component of deep, profound shame, a sense of one’s unworthiness and somehow the cause of whatever the crisis is. There are insidious forms of significant trauma, such as when an infant or child experiences insecure attachment or is not given the opportunities to complete developmental tasks, leaving parts of the brain from adequately wiring.
Sometimes people in the same situation can be traumatized while others do not experience real trauma in those moments. That speaks to resilience which is different for everyone. It is more about the ways the mind and the brain interprets a situation that determines how it is encoded within that person.
Sometimes if we have experienced something dramatic but that has not traumatized us, we assume that another person with a similar experience also has not been traumatized. But vulnerability to being traumatized is unique and personal to the individual. Because we cannot typically determine emotional trauma through blood tests or functional MRI’s, we need to more trust the symptoms that indicate significant trauma: hypervigilance, dissociation, reenactments, leading to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, powerlessness, isolation, abandonment, overwhelming emotional wounding, a loss of self or the high probability of death. We need to listen to what a person says about their experience to guide us in determining the degrees to which an experience has been traumatic versus dramatic.
Understanding the nature and impact of trauma is both an art and a science. None of us can fully understand what might be going on inside another person’s mind and brain. We all have parts of ourselves that are hidden in our unconscious, and sometimes those parts have significant emotional wounds. We can prevent a dramatic event from becoming a traumatic event through trauma-sensitive responses in the moments before, during and after an event. More about this in the next blog!
Invitation to Reflect
- Think about moments in your life that were highly dramatic but probably not traumatic. What made the difference in those moments being more about drama than trauma? To what extent were you able to find your power? How important was it to have significant others respond to you with appreciation, respect and care?
- How does this information enhance your awareness, knowledge and understanding of the nature of trauma? How might it help you look at the experience of another person to consider the degrees to which it was more about drama than trauma? Or possibly a drama that really was traumatic?