“Trauma comes back as a reaction, not a memory.”

Bessel Van Der Kolk

Trauma is something that most, if not all, of the human population experiences at some point in their life experience. What is trauma? The American Psychological Association defines trauma as an “emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.” Another definition from integratedlistening.com is “trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences.” Many people define trauma by the first definition. Because of this connotation, some people struggle with identifying chronic experiences of trauma: neglect and abuse in childhood, emotional and mental neglect and physical abuse in relationships, working in an unhealthy and toxic environment. These are only a few examples of many more unfortunate circumstances people experience.

Types of Trauma

There are 3 types of trauma: acute, chronic, and complex. Acute, or big T, trauma mainly results from a single distressing event. Types of events include, but are not limited to car accidents, natural disasters, sexual or physical assault, mugging or robbery, exposure to death, or near-death experience. The singular event is deeply disturbing and distressing. Chronic, or little t, trauma is when a person is exposed to numerous and/or long-term traumatic events over an extended period of time. These types of events include, but are not limited to: sexual abuse, domestic violence, bullying, long-term illness, and long-term exposure to extreme situations like war. Due to the chronic nature of the events, effects of the trauma typically appear after a significant period of time has passed from the event. This can include years after the events occurred. Complex trauma is the result of multiple and varied traumatic experiences over a period of time. This is usually seen within interpersonal relationships. Emotional and mental abuse/neglect are common with complex trauma.

Understanding Trauma

We consciously have little control over how our brain and body imprints trauma. Consequently, when we have unprocessed trauma, we have little to no control over our reactions when an unresolved past trauma arises to the surface. To better understand this, we have to look at different sections of our brain. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) covers the front part of the frontal lobe. The American Psychological Association identifies the PFC “functions in attention, planning, working memory, and the expression of emotions and appropriate social behaviors; its development in humans parallels improvement in cognitive control and behavioral inhibition as an individual grows into adulthood.” The PFC is part of the thinking area of our brain. We use this area during a lot of our days as we navigate events in our daily lives. Another part of our brain we use often is the limbic system(LS). Queensland Brain Institute defines LS as “the part of the brain involved in our behavioral and emotional responses, especially when it comes to behaviors we need for survival: feeding, reproduction and caring for our young, and fight or flight responses.”

Why Trauma Stays With Us

Why is all of this important to understand? Our brain operates similarly to a computer. Through our 5 senses, we are constantly taking in information. This information is then moved through the brain, and it determines what is important to store and what can be forgotten or “put in the trash.” The brain, when it is functioning normally, can process this information appropriately and move it from short-term to long-term memory, or it determines what can be forgotten or “put in the trash.”. The majority of this is done while we sleep. When we experience trauma, it is imprinted in our limbic system. Due to the event overpowering our body’s natural way of coping, it becomes “stuck”. Imagine trying to access a folder on your computer, and the computer freezes. When we are removed from the initial threat, this is when everything associated with this moment gets clumped together, i.e. sights, sounds, smells, people, places, emotions, time of day, and more. These are more commonly known as triggers.

Dealing With Unprocessed Trauma

There is a small window of time for a debriefing of the trauma and for interventions to be effective so the brain does not imprint the trauma. This is done with medical and mental health professions specially trained to help a person navigate the incident. Unfortunately, there are few times these debriefing experiences occur. When left unprocessed, we are at the mercy of whatever triggers have been associated with the initial trauma. Our reactions, thoughts, feelings, experiences, beliefs, emotions are congruent with the initial traumatic event. This is where the concept of “The past is the present” comes in. We can’t think our way out of our trauma. We can’t compartmentalize and avoid it forever. It rarely, if ever, resolved on its own. We are powerless to events and situations that stir up unprocessed stuff, and our trauma feels like it is happening in real-time. This doesn’t mean we are weak. This doesn’t mean we are incapable. We are incredibly capable of healing. There are various therapeutic modalities that are effective in helping treat and resolve these types of issues. Life doesn’t have to be permanently marked and ruled by situations that traumatized us. Remember: we can’t choose how our trauma changes us. We can choose how we heal from it.