My word of the week: trauma

‘Death by blunt-force trauma,’ is a common assessment in crime fiction. And rightfully so; the word ‘trauma’ comes from the Greek word for ‘wound’.

Like our crime stories, the Greeks used it in the physical sense, but these days, trauma can also describe a mental and emotional wound, as in Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, (PTSD) which describes the lingering and disturbing effects of a shocking experience.

Trauma can reveal itself in many ways: depression, anxiety, flash backs or recurring nightmares.

And because it arises from moments or times when we did not feel safe – trauma is everywhere.

Perhaps it is a soldier back from the front line or the victim of a sexual assault or someone once trapped in a burning building.

But there are other unsafe places in the world, unsafe experiences whether deep under water or in our home when growing up. Anxious parents, depressed parents, inconsistent parents all offer a traumatic experience to the powerless child.

Divorce, bereavement, rejection or financial worries can be powerful triggers.

There is good news. As Der Kolk observes in his book, The Body Keeps the Score ‘As human beings we belong to an extremely resilient species.’

We bounce back from endless wars and disasters, and the difficult experiences of our own lives.

‘But traumatic experiences do leave traces,’ he says, ‘whether on a large scale, (on our histories and cultures) or close to home, on our families, with dark secrets being imperceptibly passed down through generations.’

We know its trauma when it continues to affect our lives, long after the historical event. It may have occurred twenty years ago, fifty years ago – but it leaves traces on our minds and emotions and on our capacity for joy, happiness and intimacy; ‘even on our biology and immune systems’.

Unresolved emotional trauma often brings illness, the body still in distress.

And clearly it affects others as well. The traumatised pass the trauma on. Traumatised soldiers – exhibiting rage and emotional distance on their return home – may make their partners depressed or frighten their children. 

An anxious mother, seeking to control life in the home – because of her own experiences of un-safety – passes on her internal fear to her children.

Trauma, by definition, is unbearable and intolerable. And so the traumatised will often attempt to blank it out, act as if nothing has happened. Why would they wish to visit again the terror and the shame of their weakness and vulnerability?

There is the natural desire to ignore and move on.

But deep below our rational brain is the part of our brain devoted to ensuring our survival. And long after the traumatic experience itself, it can be reactivated at any hint of perceived danger.

Disturbed brain circuits are awakened and stress hormones released, making for intense physical sensations and impulsive behaviour. Suddenly, we are out of control.

‘The fear then is that we are damaged to the core and beyond redemption.’

Trauma is a continuum of experience. There is big ‘T’ and small ‘t’ trauma. As someone said to me recently, ‘It’s not like I was on the front line in the Ukraine. But I do now recognise my childhood as small ‘t’ trauma – an experience, over many years,  that still impacts on my decision making and happiness today.’

The beginning of the end for trauma is our recognition of it; some acknowledgement of difficult things. Then comes the slow reclamation of mind, physiology and spirit; the journey back to safety.

This is not just a soldier’s story.

Leave a Reply