It’s Time to Take Trauma Both More and Less Seriously
While reading about trauma’s imprint on our minds and bodies in “Invisible Legacies: The Ubiquity of Trauma” by world renowned physician Gabor Maté (Psychotherapy Networker, Mar/Apr 2023, pp. 53-55), it struck me that clients sometimes make either too little or too much of trauma. By the latter, I mean they think of trauma as so overwhelming they believe they’re powerless to stop it from scarring them for life.
I’ve had clients that have been abandoned as children, abused by parents, or sexually assaulted in adulthood who were surprised when I labelled these events as traumatic. Though I could tell in initial sessions they’d suffered from something (or several somethings) having gone very awry in their lives, they acted as if it nothing had gone wrong. I’ve also treated clients who had a hard time giving up the belief that past trauma had ruined and always would ruin their lives. They felt like damaged goods, certain that people knew simply by looking at them that they were destined for failure and misery.
Traumatic events have the power to rob us of feeling normal and growing emotionally healthy. Maté tells us that the word trauma is Greek for wounding. This wounding—recognized or unrecognized by us—“ shapes our social habits and informs our way of thinking about the world. It can even determine whether or not we are capable of rational thought at all in matters of great importance to our lives.”
Abuse and neglect (intentional or unintentional) cause “early reactions . . . that become embedded in the nervous system, mind, and body.” This is why trauma survivors automatically react in ways that are second nature to them—such as shutting down emotionally or lashing out at a slight—but which are neither appropriate nor functional.
Every time I see someone who’s clearly suffering inwardly cheerily say, “I’m fine,” when they’re obviously not, I wonder what trauma they endured. Each time I hear politicians spew outrageous, dehumanizing diatribes, I wonder what terrible things happened that made them so full of rage and hatred. Whenever I have clients who share awful things they experienced but seem unfazed by them (that is, they joke or make light of them) yet repeatedly act out in unhealthy ways, I know there’s trauma lurking in the shadows.
Trauma is real; so is resolving it. If you can recognize your usual trauma reaction of minimizing or overreacting to current life events, you can get to resolution. That means acknowledging your memory-based responses to present day situations and gradually developing more appropriate ones grounded not in past trauma but in the here and now.