"Everyone's Talking About Trauma...(but I'm not really sure what it means?)"
Updated: Aug 26
It's a word that is being used more and more, and there are a lot of hash tags like #traumainformed #healingfromtrauma #traumarecovery floating around social media. In this blog post, I'm going to try to take away the mystery, the stigma and any possible fear around trauma.
Remember that even reading or talking about this kind of topic can make you feel anxious, stressed, upset, jittery - look after yourself first. Take a few seconds - how are you feeling? If after checking in with yourself you don't feel you want to read this - don't. Take a sip of water, maybe go for a 5 minute stretch or a walk instead. Start to cultivate a compassionate self-enquiry practice and begin to learn to listen to your body.
Trauma is a wound.
The word "trauma" comes from the Greek τραῦμα - it just means a wound. And when we're talking about trauma, that's really the best way to understand it.
Wounds hurt - some more than others. Stubbing your toe can feel intensely painful for a few minutes, and then maybe it passes off, or possibly you limp for a few days.
Slicing a finger open when chopping vegetables can feel excruciating, and if you were chopping a lemon or something with spices that gets in the cut - even worse. Have you ever fallen down some stairs and hurt your back?
Did reading any of those make you wince, or remember a time when you did that? Maybe your body reacted involuntarily - I know my lower back automatically tensed up just slightly when I remembered falling down the stairs over 10 years ago.
It's likely that after being hurt, you changed the way you approached that situation. Maybe you took extra care to give the cupboard you stubbed your toe on a wide berth; held the knife with a little more awareness; really took your time holding onto the rail, coming down the stairs extra slowly for a couple of weeks. After that it might be that you forgot to take extra care, and starting skipping down stairs like you did before. Or it might be that your body and your mind worked together to change the way you walk down stairs forever - just the memory of that pain was enough to change your habits, even if you don't now consciously think of it every time you walk down in the morning.
Let's go back to when you cut yourself or scraped your knee as a child. Ideally, you would have gone to an adult, a parent or teacher, who would have washed the wound, to get rid of any dirt and bacteria, then put a plaster on it. The plaster would likely have fallen off within 20 minutes, as plasters tend to do, and over the next few days you would get to witness your body healing itself in front of your eyes. This is really important - you see the cut mending, or your skin growing together and you know you're healing because you can see it.
We know very well that not all wounds are physical. If you've ever had words with your friend or partner or family, you'll understand the power of these non-physical wounds. Let's look now at these other types of wounds.
These are invisible, but they can really hurt - often a lot more than the stubbed toe or the cut finger - so we can undoubtedly call them wounds as well. Can you remember a time when someone said something so hurtful to you that you have carried it around with you ever since, and you've even started to believe that it's true? Have you been told how stupid you are by someone you love so often that you now think that must be right - you must be stupid? This is a wound.
When you were a child, maybe your parent or carer just wasn't there for you - either through bereavement, being in prison, misusing substances, or maybe through depression. The absence of something you needed is also a wound.
If your beloved mum or dad brought you up to be respectful and polite, but you never felt truly seen by them, or they didn't show you any emotional love or respect - that is a wound. I'll say it again - the absence of something you needed is also a wound.
There are a few differences to physical wounds. We can't see them, for a start. We can't wash them clean, or put a plaster on them, we don't get to literally see them healing either. We're also not quite sure where it hurts - we aren't taught these things so much when we are growing up (mainly because our carers weren't taught it by their carers, and so it goes on). We don't really get it, and it feels so painful that we try to forget it and just crack on with our lives as best we can.
Humans are hardwired to hide our pain.
We've biologically evolved to hide our pain - if you were injured or ill when we were living 500,000 years ago then you were vulnerable to predation and would likely be killed. This stuff has been deeply hardwired into our growing brains over hundred of thousands of years, and a lot of it is still with us today. So we are driven to hide our pain - particularly the emotional wounds, because we don't really understand them, and we often feel intense shame around having them in the first place (the topic of shame is a blog post for another day). We hide our pain by shoving it down into a place where nobody else can see it, and where we try our best not to feel it either. With my clients, I call it the Soul Cupboard, where we put all the things we don't really want to have around but don't have anywhere else to put them.
If ever the uncomfortable feelings surface, we have developed incredibly sophisticated and clever ways of anaesthetizing them - we reach for wine, or drugs, or gambling. We perhaps might stand in front of the fridge desperately needing something to eat when we're not actually hungry. We might keep ourselves so busy that we don't have time to think.
When we don't treat wounds though, or they get infected through not taking care of them, they fester. They get worse, sometimes they may overwhelm our immune systems and need medicine. So too can the emotional wounds - the Soul Cupboard isn't infinite and things can, and will, start spilling out. We might struggle to close the door of the Soul Cupboard, eventually our coping mechanisms may stop working - or even begin to harm us in other ways. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, feeling disconnected, isolating yourself - all of these and many, many more, can be signs of an emotional wound that needs to be taken care of.
This is what we call trauma. It's a wound that can be caused by something happening - or by something you needed that didn't happen.
Trauma is a wound. Let's learn how to take care of it. Because then you're not stuck with these wounds. There are ways to see them, clean them, nurture them - and heal them.