Day 32: Failing to Understand Trauma

Until recently, when I heard the word trauma, I thought of big, excruciatingly painful instances like rape, natural disasters, torture or soldiers suffering from PTSD. I never thought of myself as a trauma survivor but now that I know more about the body’s stress response system, I understand that everyone on the planet has been effected by trauma.

Trauma, the Greek word for “wound”, shows up eventually. If you’ve ever experienced any of the following: the sudden death of a loved one; divorce; physical / emotional / verbal / sexual abuse; car accidents; bike wrecks; bullying; surgical procedures; sporting accidents or injuries; bad falls; being involved in or witnessing a crime (burglaries, shootings, muggings); riots; animal attacks; serious illness or injuries; war; terrorism; natural disasters; abandonment; prison; non-voluntary, institutional confinements; near death experiences; being publicly shamed; or severe neglect – you’ve been traumatized.

Although trauma is subjective to our rational brain, it’s all the same to our nervous system. It is whatever automatically triggers our body to go into flight, flight or freeze mode. In other words, coming upon a rattlesnake on your weekend hike is no different to your adrenal glands than being called out in a staff meeting for a mistake your boss actually made.

These changes to your nervous system (while your body assesses the threat at hand and decides what to do) are fine if you’re actually going to fight or flee. You get to use up the energy that you’ve created via punching, kicking, yelling, running, screaming, climbing or crying. You get the luxury of completing the stress response cycle.

But look back at the list. Think of all of the traumas that you’ve simply tabled. Remember that car accident when you hydroplaned into the median with your kid in the backseat? Once you realized that no one was seriously injured, did you shake and cry?  Or did you suck it up and tell your toddler who’s lip was quivering, “Don’t cry, Sweetie. We’re fine.  The car has a boo boo but we’re okay.”

And later when you called your mom to tell her about your accident, did you cry then as you relived the event? Or did you not give yourself permission because you were fortunate enough to walk away without a scratch from something that kills others every day of the week?

That is a great example of when being an animal is better than being a person because animals don’t have to follow our rules of decorum. If a dog had survived the same car crash she would’ve gotten out of the car and shaken like crazy right in front of and along with her puppy. And if that same dog had been screwed over in her staff meeting, she would’ve shown her teeth, growled and dominated the hell out of her boss right there in the conference room until he admitted (with his tail between his legs), “It was me who lost the dog bone account, not her!”

It’s this inability to follow our impulses and our lack of completing stress response cycles that’s making us sick and slowly killing us. What’s crazier still is that we don’t know that we can deal with this evolutionary response in ways that keep us safe without causing chronic illness and emotional issues.

I’m fairly certain that my inability to complete a variety of stress responses has been my biggest failure to date and I’m guessing you’re not so great at it either. If you’d like to change this for yourself, go back to my post on orienting and start there. Orienting is a simple, cheap and easy way to sense where your body is holding onto stress, keep your breathing in check while noticing that you’re safe.

As I continue to explore this particular failure, I’ll pass along what I find in terms of what else can be done.

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