By Katya Lovejoy & Robin Athey
“Trauma is not what happens to you. Trauma is what happens inside of you, as a result of what happened to you.”
—Dr. Gabor Maté
On the outside, Tara seemed like she had it all together. She was smart. Had friends. Worked hard enough to be accepted early into an Ivy League school. On the outside, it seemed like things came easily for her. Tara’s parents breathed a sigh of relief. As immigrant parents, they had climbed their way out of poverty and offered Tara every privilege that came to mind. They so wanted her to have a better life than theirs. And Tara complied, being the best daughter she could possibly be.
Deep within, however, Tara was silently living in turmoil. Guilt, acute anxiety, depression. No one could have noticed, for the mask that Tara put on for the world was so competent. And yet, she was living two lives: one was the cool and calm exterior that she presented to the world, so no one would have to worry, most of all her parents. Another was her more anxious inner reality, where she wondered if she would survive. Suicidal thoughts came frequently. She tried to push down feelings and memories of things that felt deeply wrong. And the more she tried to hold it all together, the more she panicked, with random explosions of anger towards people who got too close to her inner world.
She wondered, how long could she keep the façade going? Despite being surrounded by people, she felt so alone. She’d heard people talk about imposter syndrome as if it were the latest trend. Like a rite of passage towards becoming somebody. And only she knew the real truth. She was an imposter. If people ever knew, she’d be destroyed.
By her early twenties, Tara had tried everything. Medication. Talk therapy. Psychic readings. She ran marathons. Maybe she could pound her worries out on the pavement? When that didn’t work, she turned to yoga and reiki. And yet, this lingering doom never seemed to melt. Why wouldn’t it go away?
Most of us live two lives: One that we present to the outer world: our mask, which protects us. And another inner world that we hide. What if people found out what we really thought and felt? Where do those thoughts and feelings even come from?
If you’ve read this far, what brings you here? Perhaps you’ve been feeling isolated, confused, or depressed. Are you maybe feeling disconnected from yourself or others? Or perhaps you’re at a crossroads and have no idea which way to turn.
Whatever brings you here, welcome. We’re really glad that you’re here and invite you to orient towards whatever here feels nourishing––whether it’s articles, videos, or booking a session.
As Tara would learn in her 30s, the moods that never seemed to shift were complicated by complex PTSD (cPTSD). The moment she heard a therapist describe her experiences as “trauma,” a part of her recognized the deeper reality that she was living. And while the road to healing stretched far in front of her, she felt enormous relief. Finally, her symptoms, her personality, and her life made sense.
What Is Trauma?
It’s often said that trauma is not an event per se but rather the experience within the body and the mind resulting from an event or experience. This is partially why two people can experience the same event, and one person will develop PTSD and the other will not. Several factors play into a person’s resiliency or vulnerability to trauma. Past exposure to traumatic events, lack of social support during the experience, and lack of resources and skills for emotional and physiological regulation can increase a person’s vulnerability to developing PTSD after an overwhelming event. For instance, a person with multiple Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs) has a 55% increased chance of developing PTSD. ACEs span a range of experiences, such as childhood physical, emotional or sexual abuse, childhood neglect, witnessing domestic violence, parental substance abuse, parental mental illness, divorce, or death.
Typically, trauma can be caused by any situation that feels too fast, too soon, too much, and happens without consent. It is an experience that feels overwhelming to a person’s mind and body, without there being enough time, space, or support to integrate the experience afterward. The long-term chronic effects of such experiences can look like nervous system dysregulation, negative beliefs about self and the world, and relational difficulties. More specifically, this can present as chronic anxiety and/or depression, chronic fatigue, heightened startle response, hypersensitivity, anger outbursts, difficulty trusting self and others, difficulty making decisions, memory impairment, cognitive impairment, dramatic relationship patterns, and difficulty meeting developmental milestones.
Kinds of Trauma
Trauma can be activated by a one-time event that shocks the system, like an accident, natural disaster, robbery, or one-time sexual assault. The trauma that emerges from experiencing or witnessing such life-threatening events is often referred to as ‘Big T’ trauma, and it’s often connected with PTSD. Trauma can also happen over a long-term period of time, as happens with chronic illness, emotional abuse, and/or neglect and shame, long-term sexual abuse, poverty, exposure to war, and racism. The trauma that emerges from such “little t” trauma can sometimes be harder to recognize, as described above in the case of Tara. As humans, we don’t always recognize trauma when our physical lives are not in danger. However, the toll of little t trauma can be as, and sometimes more, debilitating than Big T trauma for many people. Complex trauma develops over a period of time, resulting in a person getting “stuck” in a trauma response.
A person can experience individual trauma, collective trauma, and ancestral trauma. Individual trauma refers to what happens to an individual during their lifetime. Collective trauma refers to trauma that groups of people experience through cultural norms and/or historical events. Examples include the effects of patriarchal values on women, the impact of white supremacy on people of color, the effects of generations of slavery on the collective psyche of Black people, and the impact of the Holocaust on Jewish people. Epigenetic research points to evidence of ancestral trauma, or trauma that is passed down through generations. In a classic study, rats were introduced to the scent of cherry blossom and then given a shock. Two generations later, the rats’ grandchildren exhibited a fear response in the presence of the scent of cherry blossom, even though they had never received a shock in their lifetime.
What Is a Trauma Response?
A trauma response is the way that one responds to an event that feels overwhelming. People respond in a lot of different ways. Some people’s responses are more hyperactive in nature and may feel angry, anxious, or agitated. Others may withdraw and find it hard to express what they are experiencing. They might even feel numb. Some people may find parts of their bodies moving in repetitive motions or hear themselves making unusual sounds. Others may find it hard to move at all.
Trauma continues and repeats, in cycles, whenever an unintegrated part of our past floods the current moment. It blocks our connection with objective reality––and separates us from ourselves, others, and with life––until we attend to it. Here are three ways that people’s response to trauma plays out: physiologically, psychologically, and spiritually.
Physiological Effects of Trauma
What’s happening in the nervous system and the body when someone is responding to trauma?
To begin, let’s explore what happens when a person is not responding to trauma. In other words, when they’re feeling relatively whole and connected with life. We can do that by looking at the natural pendulation of a healthy nervous system within a window of tolerance, which is like a window of resilience. It’s the zone where, when pressure and stress happen, a person can effectively respond.
As seen in the image below, a healthy nervous system cycles back and forth between the “charge” of the sympathetic nervous system and the “discharge” of the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system arouses the body into action. It’s like the gas pedal of our nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system helps us to rest, reorganize, and regenerate after a stressful experience. It’s like the brake of our nervous system.
Source: Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute
In an ideal world, a person’s nervous system pendulates between sympathetic and parasympathetic, back and forth, in ongoing cycles. This allows resiliency. The person feels relaxed, at ease, and also alert. Their responses to life will seem fluid and appropriate to the situation. The person feels embodied and present, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. They participate in life, experiencing a wide range of options and choices.
However, sometimes, when pressure and stress become too great, a person’s nervous system can get stuck in hyperarousal or hypoarousal. In hyperarousal, a person may feel increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, rage, chronic pain, worry, anxiety, panic attacks, racing thoughts, or inability to sleep or relax. It’s like the gas pedal gets stuck on “On.” In hypoarousal, it’s as if the brake gets stuck. The person is stuck on “Off,” feeling low energy, numbness, exhaustion, depression, apathy, or disconnection in relationships. In addition to getting stuck, a person’s nervous system can respond inappropriately to external cues, for example, activating when it’s time to rest or shutting down when an active response is needed.
Source: Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute
Psychological Effects of Trauma
Traumatic events can deeply impact a person’s sense of self. Especially in the case of childhood and long-term trauma, the experience of danger and loss of agency can influence a person’s core beliefs. Because trauma activates deeper, more primitive parts of the brain, the beliefs about self and the world that come as a result of trauma are often not accessible through the conscious mind or through language. This is why someone can consciously believe they are “over” an event, but their subconscious mind and body are still responding from a traumatized place.
It’s also important to remember that only about 5% of our experience is conscious, with the subconscious and unconscious influencing around 95% of how we operate in the world. As children, our brains are primarily in the theta brainwave state (the same state as hypnosis or subconscious processing) until the age of 7, which means everything that happens before then is programmed into our subconscious, templating our internal schema of ourselves and the world. This includes our beliefs about self-worth, safety, and relationships.
Whether a trauma occurs in adolescence or adulthood, or whether it is a Big T or little t trauma, the impacts on cognition and emotions are similar. People who have experienced trauma, regardless of age or type, will often report feelings of powerlessness, distrust of self and others, emotional dysregulation, self-blame, and shame.
Spiritual Effects of Trauma
Many shamanic traditions also work with trauma on a spiritual level. They believe that when a trauma occurs, a piece of a person’s soul, or vital essence, fragments off in order to protect itself. This can lead to feelings of emptiness, brokenness, and dissociation. Therefore, in addition to nervous system work and psychological work, trauma healing can also include a process called soul retrieval, which helps to realign a person’s energy body and restore their vital essence back to wholeness.
Autonomic Nervous System & Polyvagal Theory
The past 30 years have offered revolutions in our understanding of trauma. Pioneers such as Peter Levine and Bessel Van der Kolk have put trauma on the map. Another pioneer is Stephen Porges, who developed polyvagal theory, which illuminates an aspect of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that helps to explain the profound impact of developmental trauma (a little t trauma) on human development.
The ANS is profoundly impacted by early trauma. In essence, the nature of our environment––and the quality of early social connection with our primary caregivers, in particular––influences our physical and emotional life as humans. Biologically, children continuously and unconsciously scan their environments. “Am I safe and secure here?” “Do I belong?” This scanning informs our physiology and also our capacity for healthy functioning in later life.
Historically, as described earlier, the ANS has been described as having two branches: sympathetic, which prepares us for arousal, and parasympathetic, which prepares us for rest and relaxation. The body regulates as the ANS pendulates back and forth between these two states. In this way, the ANS helps our lungs, heart, and digestive system to function properly. The ANS also plays a major role in how we engage and relate with others.
Polyvagal theory expands on the traditional model of the ANS by illuminating two sub-branches of the vagus nerve within the parasympathetic nervous system: the dorsal vagus and the ventral vagus.
Dorsal refers to “backward-facing,” and it describes a large, primitive nerve that we share with all animals that helps our bodies pendulate between arousal and relaxation. When our sympathetic nervous systems go into overload, the dorsal vagal system can shut down, and we go into freeze.
Ventral refers to “forward-facing,” and it describes a newer evolutionary addition to our ANS, the ventral vagus, which is common to animals that raise their young. This part of the vagus nerve links to cranial nerves that activate the facial muscles we use to communicate.
In their communication with caregivers, children, even babies, tend to go towards this newer addition of the ANS first. In other words, they will innervate parts of their face to communicate, attempting social engagement. If social engagement doesn’t work, then their second unconscious strategy is to engage in fight and/or flight as a way to stay safe. If the child’s brain detects that fight or flight isn’t working for some reason, then they fall back to an even more primal response, that is, to freeze.
This process plays out in a powerful 3-minute video describing the Still Face Experiment led by Dr. Ed Tronick at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Our social engagement system is highly sensitive to our early social development. And it continues to develop throughout our teenage years. The term neuroception, coined by Stephen Porges, describes how the nervous system unconsciously mediates our capacity for trust, safety, and intimacy as humans.
In sum, our nervous system evolved to regulate our bodies’ physiological functioning––and also to promote feelings of safe and secure social bonds. Safety and security underpin our capacity to self-regulate––and also to be resilient.
What Helps To Heal Trauma?
The road to recovery of trauma depends a lot on the client, the therapist, and also the modality. The client’s desire to engage, of course, is crucial for healing to happen. And growing research points to empathy, warmth, and the quality of the therapeutic relationship itself being as important, if not more important, than specific modalities. That said, some modalities seem to be more effective than others.
Beyond these core elements of healing, people also need access to resources within themselves and outside of themselves to heal. By resources, we refer to qualities, capabilities, and awareness within ourselves––along with actions, things, and people outside ourselves––that help us to regulate our nervous system and feel a sense of competency and wellbeing, no matter what’s happening around us. Resources can be physical, imaginal, emotional, relational, artistic, somatic, spiritual, etc. They help us to feel relaxed, alert, and connected with what’s present.
In the case of Tara, in the example above, her resources included slowing down, breathing, being present with sensations, self-massage, rest, yoga, long walks in nature, and horses. Allowing space and attention to these resources was not just a nice-to-do thing. It was core to her healing process. Different people will have different resources. And what’s healing for some may be triggering for another, depending on the nature of their trauma. We each have an inner wisdom about which resources are most beneficial for us; it’s important to be with a therapist who honors and draws out your own inner wisdom.
Examples of resourcing practices and resources:
- Pausing––to orient to whatever space that you’re in, to breathe, to presence
- Being with––or bringing to mind––a favorite person with whom you feel safe
- Being in nature
- Participating in therapy and support groups
- Allowing time for self-care, such as baths, self-massage, relaxation
- Practicing mindfulness, yoga, and breathwork
- Exercising in a way that allows you to feel your body
- Participating in community
- Engaging in spiritual practice
- Listening to music
- Enjoying art and creative practice
- Being with animals
- Serving, through volunteer work
- Receiving bodywork
With any form of resource, it’s important to trust your inner knowing and to honor the body. If the touch of bodywork, for example, doesn’t feel safe, it’s important to explore that intuition in a way that does feel safe (e.g., with a highly skilled trauma therapist).
Similarly, meditation and mindfulness can be highly effective in reducing many symptoms of trauma, such as self-blame and shame. Such practices can help people to regulate their nervous systems and even create structural changes in the brain. However, for some, trauma can activate during meditation in a way that can be highly dysregulating. If you believe that you are subject to trauma activation, it can be very important to work with a trauma-informed teacher when learning these practices.
When it comes to therapeutic modalities, some are more appropriate and effective for trauma resolution than others. For example, trauma survivors often express that they do not experience a huge relief from traditional talk therapy techniques like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or psychoanalysis. While CBT and psychoanalysis can indeed be very helpful, if they are not applied within a trauma-focused lens that also addresses the nervous system, subconscious mind, and neurological changes, these modalities may not be the most appropriate for trauma resolution.
As with resourcing, every person is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to trauma healing. A therapeutic modality that works for one person may not be the right fit for someone else. A person might benefit from working with a few different therapies in order to have a well-rounded approach to their healing.
Trauma-focused therapeutic modalities that have proven effectiveness:
- Somatic Experiencing
- Trauma focused Hypnotherapy (e.g., Heart Centered Hypnotherapy)
- EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)
- NARM (NeuroAffective Relational Model)
- Sensorimotor Therapy
- AARM (Adult Attachment Repair Model)
- Trauma informed meditation practices (e.g., iRest, yoga nidra)
- TF-CBT (Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Healing Shame
What to keep in mind when choosing a trauma therapist or coach:
The following questions can be helpful when choosing a trauma therapist or coach:
- Are they trained in multiple modalities of trauma, including somatics and psychotherapy, and/or psychology?
- Do they have experience working with the type of trauma you’ve had?
- Do they prioritize your wellbeing over their own opinion or agenda?
- Do you feel a warmth and resonance with this person?
- How do this person’s referrals and/or testimonials resonate for you?
- What does your intuition say?
Things To Remember on the Trauma Healing Journey
The saying “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast” is a great motto to remember when approaching trauma healing. Often we want to “fix” everything right away. While that’s understandable, we also want to approach this process with gentleness, understanding, compassion, and patience. If trauma is too much, too fast, too soon, then approaching our healing from a similar way of rushing and overloading on healing modalities can actually do more harm than good. Small, steady changes create sustainable change.
While we can prefer not to have had a trauma happen, an important part of healing is accepting the past while connecting to our ability to create a new way of being in the present. Without our wounds, we would not have the opportunity to expand and gain wisdom. The portal to our healing is in the wounding. If we can look at our healing journey as an opportunity to grow and something we “get” to do, we can release judgment and relax into the process. While it was never our responsibility to prevent trauma, it is now our responsibility to do the healing work. When we embrace this responsibility, we have access to a sense of freedom and empowerment that can help us to live a life of purpose and meaning.
Resources: Books, Articles, & Videos
Below are books, articles, and videos that we’ve found useful. We welcome your favorites!
- Peter Levine
- Bessel Van Der Kolk – The Body Keeps the Score
- Gabor Mate – In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts
- Resmaa Menakem – My Grandmother’s Hands
- Laurence Heller and Aline LaPierre – Healing Developmental Trauma
- Janina Fischer – Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma: A Workbook for Survivors and Therapists
- Mark Wolynn – It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle
- Thomas Hubl – Healing the Collective Trauma
- Rachel Maddox – ReBloom: Archetypal Trauma Resolution for Personal & Collective Healing
- Elizabeth Stanley – Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma
- Staci Haines – The Politics of Trauma: Somatics, Healing and Social Justice
- Bethany Webster – Discovering the Inner Mother
- Sandra Ingerman – Soul Retrieval
- Valerie Rein – Patriarchy Stress Disorder
- Karyl McBride – Will I Ever Be Good Enough: Healing Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers
- Patrick Carnes – The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships
- Brene Brown – I Thought It Was Just Me
- Edward Tick – War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Norman Doidge – The Brain that Changes Itself
- Gershen Kaufman – Shame: The Power of Caring
- Donald Nathanson – Shame and Pride
- Somatic Experiencing International YouTube channel
- Monica LeSage TEDx – Does Somatic Experiencing Work?
- Sheila Rubin and Bret Lyon – Shame, Trauma, the Nervous System and Coronavirus (distinguishes shame and trauma)
- Thomas Hübl – YouTube channel
- Gabor Mate – YouTube channel
- Ed Tronick – Still Face Experiment
- Sheila Rubin and Bret Lyon – Healing Shame: How to Work with this Powerful, Mysterious Emotion and Transform it into an Ally