“Some people’s lives seem to flow in a narrative; mine had many stops and starts. That’s what trauma does. It interrupts the plot… It just happens, and then life goes on. No one prepared you for it.” -Jessica Stern, Denial: A Memoir of Terror
What is trauma?
Trauma is a more common experience than you may have guessed. You may think it is a bit far-fetched that most people have experienced trauma. Perhaps this is because your definition of trauma causes you to believe that only the most extreme forms of violence are considered traumatic.
Trauma is the inability to deal with a stressful situation in a way that brings emotional resolution. When we experience something difficult or painful, it affects the area of our brain responsible for generating emotions. These unpleasant memories become stored in our brains, impacting our emotions, thoughts, nervous system, and every part of our lives. It’s as if our emotional development becomes imprisoned in that space and time, while the rest of our body and world struggles to keep living.
How are we affected by trauma?
Most stressful situations cause trauma which means that a person can be traumatized in a variety of ways. Most people are aware that major events such as house fires, sexual abuse, natural disasters, and combat leave individuals with conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, some of the most impactful traumas happen to us as children when we did not have a safe adult who could help us navigate our emotional upsets. Every one of us has experienced times when we felt embarrassment, rejection, failure, and neglected by parents who were distant and distracted. These types of experiences can have a lasting impact if not processed properly.
When we don’t resolve these big and small traumas, we lose ourselves. We become people focused on pleasing others in order to gain approval and feel important. Instead of believing that we are capable, enough, lovable, smart, and so on, we operate with negative scripts like: “I don’t belong, I’m defective, I’m not safe, I’m a failure, I’m a disappointment, I’m not good enough, I’m stupid, I’m insignificant, and I’m unlovable.” In return, these negative beliefs hinder us from being in healthy, loving relationships. They cause us to settle for friends and lovers with narcissistic personalities. They stop us from seeing our unique gifts and talents. They paralyze us with fear or push us to perform, and they often become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How do we get better?
One of the greatest tools for healing trauma is caring relationships with people who can sooth our emotions and provide an atmosphere of safety. Since trauma is stored in the emotional part of the brain, it requires a safe emotional connection to people who can us help heal through physical, relational and emotional means.
In addition, there are a variety of therapies specifically for healing trauma. One particular therapeutic approach is EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing). This is one of the most effective treatments for trauma. It utilizes eye movements and tapping in order to help the client reprocess and heal the negative emotions connected with stressful situations. It results in the development of positive internal self-talk, a reduction of triggers, and improvement in physical and emotional wellbeing.
No one has to live with the paralyzing effects of trauma. There are ways to heal. There are loved ones who care about you getting better. There are professionals who are ready to help you see your trauma as a distant memory and not an obstacle to your future.
Shapiro, Dr. Francine. Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy. Rodale Inc, 2012.
Stern, Jessica. Denial: A Memoir of Terror. Harper Collins, 2010.
Van der Kolk, Dr. Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind & Body in the Healing of Trauma. Viking Penguin, 2014.