What is Trauma?

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” - Viktor Frankl

This post was written in collaboration with Dr. Laura Cueva-Miller, clinical psychologist. Dr. Cueva-Miller is a cherished contributor to Auteur and will continue to join us as we explore issues related to trauma and psychological healing via embodied channels. 

What is trauma? Dictionaries define trauma as: “an experience that produces psychological injury or pain,” or “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” The DSM-5 PTSD diagnosis criteria describes trauma as "exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.”

As psychology vocabulary becomes more and more popularized, these terms often become distorted or misunderstood. In our culture, the word “trauma” often connotes some form of pathology.  By pathologizing trauma, we impose all of the stigmas that our culture attaches to pathology and mental illness, perhaps suggesting that trauma entails weakness or severe, irreparable damage. 

Perhaps we may consider that trauma takes place more commonly than we realize. As such, we find a more appropriate definition presented in the book Trauma-Sensitive Yoga in Therapy by David Emerson: trauma is an experience involving an extreme lack of choice.  

Using this definition, let’s explore the ways that we can identify and acknowledge trauma in otherwise hidden places, As a woman, living in a large city in California, I know that I experience an extreme lack of choice in many situations.  For instance, when I leave my office building at night, I make sure that I have my keys in my hand, before leaving the building. When I exit the building, I walk standing tall and make sure to look at my surroundings repeatedly as I walk to my car.  I also look in my car to make sure that nothing unexpected is in my car before I get in. Regardless of how others may interpret this decision, in my day to day life, I do not believe that I have a choice as to whether or not to engage in this set of behaviors (even though I work and live in an area that I would consider to be quite safe).

In 2016, many of us have experienced what we can call "micro-traumas" on a regular basis, perhaps even on a daily basis. The example above can be categorized as a micro-trauma. Trauma is not just something that affects war veterans and rape survivors. You might experience trauma in the aftermath of an unhealthy relationship that left you feeling cynical about future relationships. Furthermore, the work of Dr. Roxane Cohen-Silver finds that people may also experience indirect trauma, or collective trauma when we are repeatedly exposed to stories and images of police brutality, terrorism, war, and other forms of violence. In light of these new perspectives on trauma, we can only imagine how many traumas are experienced and brushed off as "just a part of this life today." 

How many of us realize how our repeated experiences of micro-traumas have an impact on our bodies and our brains? In his best-selling book The Body Keeps the Score,  Dr. Bessel van der Kolk describes the impact of trauma on the brain, specifically the right limbic area and Broca's area. These areas of the brain oversee emotional experiences and language formation.  According Dr. Van der Kolk, in the aftermath of trauma, it is common for people to find difficulty verbalizing their experiences. Furthermore, when any trauma is remembered, the brain experiences the memory as if the trauma were happening again - the same areas of the brain are impacted with just the act of remembering. On a sensory level, when we recall a traumatic event, it may feel as though we are experiencing the event all over again in real time. We may remember vividly the sights, sounds, and emotions that we associate with the trauma. However, we have trouble translating these experiences into words. Furthermore, we don’t always have control over when we think about these experiences again, as these memories may be triggered by any (seemingly arbitrary) stimuli that we may associate with the traumatic event: perhaps a color, a location, a phrase, or even a particular person can become a trigger for this memory. 

 So, what do we do when we expose trauma within ourselves and within our culture?  

First, we acknowledge it. Without conscious awareness or effort, we are compelled to fully relive our traumas each and every time we remember them, without ever being able to fully process or integrate these experiences into the story of our lives. We may find sometimes that we are reacting unknowingly from a place of defensiveness, without sovereignty from our emotions. 

Next, we begin the “work” of disentangling ourselves from the grip of trauma.  Where there is difficulty with language, there is yoga and movement. Fortunately for us, our bodies have a direct system of communication with the brain via sensorimotor neurons, and by rerouting the sensorimotor messages the brain is receiving, we may begin to claim the story of our traumas and become the authors of our lives again. 

What happens when we consciously choose to reroute our biological responses to traumatic memories by allowing space for choice? By inviting the breath to help us pause and sense ourselves in a situation that is triggering, without closing down to protect ourselves: perhaps we will find new options, new approaches, and new solutions that reach beyond the moments when we may otherwise perceive an extreme lack of choice. 

We live in a culture where our personal and collective traumas and micro-traumas may often be unconsciously triggered by the environment that we live in. It’s a reality that suggests that we, as individuals and as a culture, might need to invest in the process of healing, particularly if we care to tune in to the stories we are telling ourselves. Although the word trauma can hold some very heavy significance, we find that we can create space by settling back into the foundations of the body and breath, and pausing to acknowledge when trauma is being triggered again. This work of disentangling ourselves and healing can be done only in safe places, and preferably in the presence of a compassionate guide. 

We will continue to explore these pathways in future blog posts and we hope that you will join us in this process of discovering and healing our bodies, our thoughts, and our cultures.  

Kintsukuroi: When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something has suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful. Let's explore the preciousness of every chip, crack, and aperture. Let's celebrate our wayward histories.

Kintsukuroi: When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something has suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.
Let's explore the preciousness of every chip, crack, and aperture. Let's celebrate our wayward histories.