Sorting through trauma information is daunting.
I have been working on increasing my awareness and understanding of the nature of trauma and the principles for well over 10 years and still have plenty of work ahead of me! Some of what I will be sharing in these blogs are important bits and pieces of my journey to better understand the nature of trauma. Hopefully, these posts will be both educational and inspirational to my readers.
As I covered in my last blog, we need to put trauma on a continuum to better appreciate the degree of severity of any given experience. In addition, it can be helpful to differentiate between two main categories of trauma: circumstantial traumas and relational traumas.
Circumstantial traumas occur as a result of a situation that is overwhelming and terrifying and is caused by something that is basically impersonal in nature: a tornado, flood, car accident, fire, a bad fall, getting horribly lost and not feeling safe.
Relational traumas are those traumatic experiences that involve some kind of abuse, neglect or betrayal that occurs within the context of a relationship, usually a significant relationship. The abuse, neglect or betrayal evoke overwhelming feelings of fear, terror, loss of safety, powerlessness, abandonment, hopelessness and often shame and guilt. The more significant the relationship – such as trauma that occurs between a parent and child or other significant family member, close friend, confidant, person with whom trust has been assumed – the more likely the trauma is to be deeper and more wounding.
Relational traumas can have degrees of severity just as circumstantial ones can. One-time traumas may have less of an impact than trauma that is chronically occurring. However, there are those one-time traumas that produce lifelong pain and fear if they are not attended to.
Some relational traumas are considered to be complex in nature, as described by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: https://www.nctsn.org/ “Complex trauma describes both children’s exposure to multiple traumatic events—often of an invasive, interpersonal nature—and the wide-ranging, long-term effects of this exposure. These events are severe and pervasive, such as abuse or profound neglect. They usually occur early in life and can disrupt many aspects of the child’s development and the formation of a sense of self. Since these events often occur with a caregiver, they interfere with the child’s ability to form a secure attachment. Many aspects of a child’s healthy physical and mental development rely on this primary source of safety and stability.” See this link for more information: https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/complex-trauma
Relational traumas are as complex as relationships, maybe even more so. Depending on the age of the child, the nature of the relationship and the degrees to which the child tends to be more or less resilient when experiencing extreme stress, one child may walk away from a relational trauma without it being as deeply scarring as it is for another child. An adult with unresolved relational childhood trauma may have a myriad of symptoms of that unresolved trauma or may have few if any symptoms… except when a memory of that trauma is triggered.
For some there can be relational healing as a result of learning how to trust and feel safe in other relationships. This helps the brain to create new beliefs around a specific relational trauma versus a generalized sense of most, if not all, relationships being unsafe.
Consider the following situations and the degrees to which you think the child is experiencing either circumstantial or relational trauma. In the first situation, a child’s home catches on fire and there are multiple fire trucks surrounding the house, sirens blaring, people running everywhere to find safety, the child is scooped up by a firefighter and rushed in an ambulance to the hospital. Circumstantial or relational?
This is more circumstantial than relational. At the same time, there can be relational trauma if the child is left alone in the ER and therefore does not have the security of a trusted family member there to provide a sense of safety. If there is such a person, and the child receives appropriate comfort and affirmations that all will be well, the trauma will most likely remain more circumstantial than relational. While there may need to be some interventions to deal with the fearful memories created, it is much easier to resolve the trauma of the experience than if there were relational traumas accompanying it.
In another instance, while walking down the street an adolescent is attacked by a total stranger, beaten and robbed. Almost immediately someone notices, calls the police and comes to his or her rescue. More circumstantial or relational?
More circumstantial is the correct answer. Even though it is an incident between two people, the fact that there’s no relationship makes it circumstantial. Consider if the adolescent knew the person, was in some kind of relationship with that person, and then was beaten and robbed. It would then become a relational trauma because it involves the breakage of trust, some kind of unfair power dynamic and a willingness to cause physical pain to somebody with whom that person has a relationship. Even if both beatings were identical in terms of their degree of brutality, the circumstantial trauma would have a different and probably lesser impact than the relational one.
While circumstantial traumas need to be respected, honored and responded to in sensitive ways, it is the relational traumas that seem to do the deepest damage within the person on the receiving end. We are relational creatures who depend on the safety of our relationships to protect us and allow us to learn, grow, thrive and, when wounded, heal. Relationships are living entities and require sufficient nurture and protection to survive and thrive. Relational traumas jeopardize some of those thriving capacities.
Regarding circumstantial traumas, we are fairly well equipped emotionally as well as physically to handle them, especially when we are surrounded by people we love and trust who care for us as we deal with whatever consequences are related to that trauma.
As we continue to look at this complex subject, it can be helpful to put trauma more in one camp than the other: more circumstantial than relational or vice versa, and yet to realize that there are relational components to many circumstantial traumas. Trauma certainly has its nuances and complexities. Welcome to the world of studying trauma!
Invitation to Reflect:
- Reflect on some of the traumatic events you’ve experienced in your life. Which seem more circumstantial than relational and which are more relational than circumstantial? In each case, how clear are you about the category? (It is okay if some of the lines are blurred!)
- To what extent do you feel a growing sense of responsibility for your role in either protecting someone from relational trauma, including yourself, and being careful not to be a perpetrator of relational trauma? As people study the nature of trauma, there can be a growing sense of responsibility in this regard.
Two Main Categories of Trauma