The concept of trauma has become mainstream in our culture these days. There are plenty of social media influencers that teach about it and references in tv shows and other media.
What is it in psychological terms?
It is both an overwhelming experience and the way our bodies change as a result. It is due to changes in our physiology as humans, the same physiology we share with all mammals.
Simply put, these changes in physiology refer to the way the brain, body, and nervous system become extremely sensitive to threat. It becomes so hypersensitized that a traumatized individual may perceive threat in most places, even where it doesn’t exist. It is the continuous reliving of the past event or events in the present moment. People get stuck in that traumatic moment indefinitely.
Trauma can feel like intense physical sensations, being out of control, damaged beyond repair, and the urge to act impulsively. These are due to increased stress responses designed to keep us safe from ever experiencing that event again. This creates difficulties in filtering out relevant information (like where you parked your car) from unimportant information (such as all the places in the parking lot someone can sneak out from), difficulty learning from experience, and generally feeling stuck. Much of the time trauma occurs in the space of close relationships with trusted people like primary caregivers. This can disrupt future attempts at forming healthy relationships.
Furthermore, the shame that people experience resulting from how they survived abuse, combat, or other traumatic experiences can be overwhelming. People have reported shame around failing to protect themselves and blaming themselves for an assault, placating an abuser and enabling the abuse to continue (which occurs when the victim is dependent upon the abuser), and committing acts of revenge they come to regret. Often times, this all culminates in a sense of emotional numbness that is only broken by mood swings of intense rage or shame.
As a society, we have historically chosen to deny that traumatic events like abuse, neglect, or assault could happen in our own homes and communities. Denial makes trauma worse, but it is hard to people to confront such horrors. This is most difficult for the sufferer, which leads to keeping them stuck. Being stuck in the past makes it very hard for people to be imaginative and envision their futures, let alone plan for it. It’s a hard cycle to break.
There is help for anyone living this way. There are better ways to cope than avoidance, alcohol and drugs, shopping, gambling, or whatever unhealthy coping mechanisms appear to work best in the short term. A trained therapist can help teach the skills necessary to break out of trauma and provide a safe place to heal.
Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books.
Levine, P. A. & Frederick, A. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. North Atlantic Books.