Trauma is a normal human experience. We need to know what to do with it.
Charlie is an almost 3-year-old Labradoodle. We don’t know a lot about the first year of his life, but he does not like getting in cars. He shakes uncontrollably as soon as he knows he has to get in a car and it takes a long time for him to stop shaking once he’s inside. When we first got him, I had to lift him up and put him in physically. Now he gets in on his own, but even when he knows he’s going somewhere fun, like the local dog park, he still shakes — all the way there, and all the way home.
That kind of shaking or quivering is a common behavior exhibited by mammals when they are traumatized. All mammals can experience trauma, and few if any people make it through life without experiencing traumatic events of some sort. Trauma has typically been defined in transactional terms. It is thought of as emotional or physical in nature, and emotional trauma is further subdivided into categories, from an acute response during or directly after an event, to prolonged or repeated events, to a complex form resulting from multiple events that may or may not be related.
With his usual fresh approach to what is often considered the status quo, Dr. Gabor Maté notes that the word trauma comes from the Greek word for wound. Which means that “trauma is not what happens to you. Trauma is what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you.” This helps to explain why what negatively affects one person may not bother another person as much or at all. If I read him correctly, Maté is saying that it is not the event, but the interpretation of the event – the meaning given to the event – that is traumatic.
In the same interview, Maté illustrates his point with an example from his own life. As a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Hungary, Maté was temporarily given by his mother to a stranger to take care of him. Maté says that his wound “wasn’t that my mother gave me to a stranger. My wound was that I made that mean that I wasn’t lovable and I wasn’t wanted and I was being abandoned.”
Maté goes on to say that the fact that this wounding happens inside us rather than to us is good news. If the wound was what happened to you, guess what? It’ll never unhappen. But if the wound happens inside you, that can heal at any time.
Therapist and trauma specialist, Resmaa Menakem, combines old wisdom and new science in his work. Trauma is a primary experience of being alive. Trauma always occurs in a context. Whatever is not processed in that original context hangs on in a decontextualized nature. Sit with Menakem’s insight about this for a moment and its truth will reveal itself to you.
“Trauma decontextualized in a person looks like personality. Trauma decontextualized in a family looks like family traits. Trauma [decontextualized] in a people looks like culture.”
The power of interpretation – story – and the wonder of the human being, is that interpretations can be so powerful that they are not contained only in our thinking. When stories are powerful enough, they take up residence in our bodies. There is even evidence now from the field of epigenetics that, under the right circumstances, these stories can become encoded in our DNA. This means that we can approach trauma in more than one way: psycho-emotionally through working with the stories, and somatically through working with the body. This brings us back to Charlie the Labradoodle quivering in the back seat.
The body’s natural response to wounding events is quivering, which helps to discharge the energy associated with the experience. Something happened to Charlie that created a negative response that he associates with getting in a car. Shaking is how his body processes the memories triggered by being in the car.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine who is a Registered Massage Therapist introduced my wife and me to TRE: Trauma Release Exercises. TRE is a strategic approach to processing responses stored in the body. Through a series of exercises that induce physical shaking while bypassing the emotional content of the wound, there is no danger of being triggered or re-traumatized.
Meanwhile, back at the level of the stories we tell ourselves that create emotional wounds, through therapy or coaching (depending on the acuity of the wound), there is good news. Old stories can be re-interpreted. Wounds can heal. Trauma is a normal human experience. It doesn’have to be the end of the story.
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