Kind of buries the lede with the title, huh? Let’s talk trauma! Couple of reasons, first, it keeps coming up in session. I never write a blog about a singular client or client concern, but when a topic keeps coming up with many different clients, or has come up regularly over the years, then I think having it in writing can be helpful. Second, I’m getting my certification in Religious Trauma (woot!), so it’s very much fresh in my mind as a topic right now. And the conversation that I keep having with people goes something like this: I say, “Well, that’s because trauma changes the way your brain is wired.” And my client responds, “But I don’t have trauma.” And here’s the thing, we all have trauma.
Trauma is kind of a weird thing to talk about. Nearly everyone knows it affects people in a major way. It was an established concept even before the formal diagnosis came into existence in 1980. We think of shell-shock for soldiers in both World Wars, or what was referred to as “railway brain” for survivors of train accidents. But it has been a concept throughout history, just called different things. The word “nostalgia” was coined in the 1600s for soldiers who were homesick, but also afflicted by some form of listless stupor. It is included in ancient myths around epic wars, and is included in the oldest manuscripts we have in The Epic of Gilgamesh, where Gilgamesh has recurring nightmares and intrusive thoughts after witnessing the traumatic death of his best friend. So, trauma as part of human existence literally traces all the way back through history, and yet, many people still think of it as an affliction other people have, while ignoring their own trauma history.
I like to talk about “Big T” trauma, like in PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), and “little t” traumas that we all have. This seems to reconceptualize trauma enough that people can start to look at their own history for it, even if they have never been to war or experienced a violent car accident or witnessed a tragic death. And while many of those tragic events are associated with PTSD, lots of things create a trauma response in our brain. Literally any time our brain is faced with the thought of dying our brain takes that as a trauma. Some people speculate that birth is traumatic for babies, hence the classic slap on the bottom to shake them out of it, some babies are in shock from being birthed. Being spanked elicits a trauma response in children, often made more complex by the aggression/danger from someone we associate with love and safety like a parent. Having your house or car broken into can create a trauma response, as your brain confronts the reality that daily life is dangerous. Brushes with death, like a near car accident, or someone close to us dying unexpectedly can also force our brain into survival mode.
Big T trauma and little t trauma is just my colloquial way of talking about adverse experiences, which are negative experiences that our brain takes a fight or flight response to. We have assessments in psychology like ACEs, Adverse Childhood Experiences, or AREs, Adverse Religious Experiences, that take into account many different experiences where our brains switched into that fight/flight survival mode. Not all of these events might seem like trauma, and we might not even recall them as traumatic, but the brain processes life-threatening danger as trauma. And the more of these adverse experiences we have, especially while we are young and our brain is still developing, the more likely it is that our brain biology was changed in response to these experiences. Trauma literally changes our brains and the feedback loops that are available to assess dangers. And when those loops get stuck, or as that metaphorical switch gets flipped into survival mode, we can’t use our higher level functions like problem-solving, critical thinking, or healthy communication. All we can do is survive, until we feel safe. And if we have complex trauma responses, our brain can assess nearly any situation as triggering that survival response, even if it doesn’t make sense to other people.
Whether adverse experiences makes sense, or Big T versus little t trauma makes sense, I just want to highlight that we all have experienced some big hurts in our lives. Finding healthy environments and relationships where we can feel safe helps our brain to relearn and reprocess our experiences, so we aren’t forever stuck in survival mode. So let’s all have grace for those dealing with complex trauma and PTSD, shoutout to our service men and women and first responders, but let’s not neglect our own healing just because our traumas aren’t as obvious or severe as other peoples.