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Let's Talk About Trauma

How's that for a title that not only makes you not want to click on the article, but instead slam the computer shut and run off to hide in a closet? Or the other option of "What trauma?" I can't imagine a less inviting topic, but since you're here, I hope you'll hear me out.


I want to talk about your trauma, but not in the ways you probably think. You don't have to tell me about your abusive mother, or the time you were at the atm and got held up at gunpoint. I want to talk about trauma as a definition and I want to talk to you about how recognizing your own traumas can have life altering consequences (in a positive way).




The parts of my own healing journey that have had the biggest impact have come not from examining the obviously awful things that have happened in my relationships, but more in looking at how I ended up allowing that kind of relationship to exist in the first place. How did I allow myself to overlook so many red flags? Why didn't I think I deserved better? Understanding what trauma is and how it shapes our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions can be the key to making progress in your own healing.


Let's take a really simple example to illustrate: You're in a new relationship and things seem to be going well. You text the other person, who is usually quick with a response, but this time you don't get one right away. 30 minutes: They're mad at me--I must have done something to make them mad. 60 min: Maybe they don't like me anymore. 90 Min: It's over and I will die alone. And then 15 minutes later, you get a response--and all is well. Or is it? Do you ever stop to question why you immediately went to the doomsday thinking, rather than "That person must be busy" which was more likely the case? That's where the healing happens. Not from getting through that whole scenario, only to repeat it ad nauseam throughout the relationship. True healing comes from figuring out why you get anxious and go straight to catastrophic thinking every time you don't get a text response in 5 minutes or less (hello, abandonment issues with a side of anxious attachment style).


Trauma is something that most people understand on a superficial level. It's something bad (often horrific) that we experience. It's easy to understand it in terms of things like a mass shooting, or a natural disaster, but much harder to conceptualize when the cause and effect are not so correlated. The basic definition of trauma from a quick dictionary search is: "a deeply distressing or disturbing experience". A better definition, I think, is this one: "Trauma is an emotional response to an intense event that threatens or causes harm." And here's the key: that emotional response is not always worked through or allowed to exist in that moment or experience. What happens to those responses? They get stored in our bodies and they create patterns of responses in the limbic system of our brain that we simply cannot control. *


Take our example above--you have no idea why this person, who has given you no indication that they are mad or don't like you would feel that way, yet it's the first place you go in your head in response to not getting a response in the time frame you expected. Why? Perhaps you have abandonment issues that are triggered by the lack of immediate response. Or maybe you had a parent that constantly berated you or told you that you were worthless, all the while claiming to love you more than anything in the world. There's a whole variety of things that could have landed you there, and it's not about assigning blame or not taking responsibility for your own words or actions. It's about understanding where the thoughts and behaviors that you experience come from. Recognition is the key. When you can recognize your triggers, you can slowly begin to alter your responses.


The other important thing to know about trauma is that it doesn't have to be something that happens to us. It is just as often the things we didn't get as children that caused us to experience trauma. Food or shelter insecurity, physical and/or emotional neglect, parentification are all things that affect the development of our brains and the patterns of responses that we create in order to survive. It's when we grow up that those patterns that protected us for so long start to show up in harmful ways.


My wish for anyone struggling, whether it be in the context of an unhappy or abusive marriage, or just the daily fights with your own brain about who you are and your value on this earth, is that you have the opportunity to understand why you feel, think, and behave in certain ways, or why you keep repeating unhealthy patterns in your relationships. You may know in your head "My dad was an alcoholic abusive asshole that yelled a lot and I was terrified of him" but not understand why you had a panic attack when your boss was yelling at a coworker two cubicles over or why any time your partner expresses any kind of frustration or anger, you completely shut down.


I'm telling you, making those connections will change your life. Not because you have someone to blame, and you don't even necessarily have to relive all the garbage that was your trauma to get past it--it really can be as simple as recognizing and understanding that it's not something you can control. You can't make your brain stop functioning the way it was programmed to all through your most formative years. But you can start to see it happening, and make different, conscious choices to respond differently. Our brains are so malleable. We can create new neural pathways. Healing.


Let's wrap this up with a follow-up to our example above. You send the text. 30 minutes later, no response. Anxiety--they're mad at me...wait...why would they be mad at me? This response isn't rational. The anxiety doesn't go away, but you see it and you say "hey--you're here because of X, not because of this person or that they haven't responded yet" and you can take a walk, or read, or journal, or whatever you need to do. And you keep doing that...until one day you send a text and 45 minutes later realize you haven't gotten a response, and you didn't even notice.

(There's also this whole side subject of having open and honest conversations about all of this with the person you're trying to be in a relationship with, not making them responsible for your self-worth, etc, but I digress and that's for another blog).


*If you would like to learn more about how trauma is stored in our bodies and how it affects brain development and emotional responses, I highly recommend Dr. Gabor Mate's book, The Body Keeps the Score

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