What is trauma?
There are many different definitions of trauma. There are also different types, which affect people in different ways and cause a whole range of problems and symptoms. We don't want to be here all day, so I'll list some common symptoms first and then attempt to convey some of the findings of Dr Peter Levine, who has been working with trauma for over 40 years and developed the Somatic Experiencing approach.
Trapped trauma energy can result in the following symptoms:
Unexplained pain or discomfort
Hyper vigilance, feeling on guard
Sensitivity to sound and light
Dissociation (feeling disconnected, spaced out)
Digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome
Muscular tension and chronic pain problems
Inability to think clearly
Syndromes like chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia
Mental health issues like depression, personality disorders, OCD
Dr Peter Levine's Findings
Early on his clinical career, Dr Levine studied wild animals, observing that even though their lives are routinely threatened, they don’t suffer with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Why? Mainly because they're able to release all the ‘fight and flight’ survival energy from their bodies, naturally and simply, once the threat has passed. They then go on with their lives as if nothing just happened.
Although human beings have a similar nervous system to wild animals, we don't easily discharge this energy from our bodies. In our modern-day sophisticated world, we tend to override our instinctual natures. For example, during a minor traffic accident, there is always a powerful adrenaline rush, and rather than allowing our nervous systems to express and release this energy we feel in our bodies afterwards, we quickly deal with exchanging addresses, and drive to where we were going. This override is what causes the spaced/disconnected or numb/shut down states we associate with 'shock.'
Let's be clear: the survival energy is massive – we've all heard stories like the one about a woman lifting up a car to allow her trapped son to get out from underneath. So if we don't use this energy during the life-threatening or stressful event or release it soon afterwards, it stays trapped in the body and psyche, and can persist for years causing a variety of debilitating symptoms. This energy can keep us stuck in the past, reliving trauma, unable to engage with life and unable to feel fully present.
Flight, fight, and freeze
In the wild, when an animal is threatened it will first try to run away (flight) or defend itself if it has to (fight). A third survival scenario is also possible if these can't happen for whatever reason. This is what's called 'tonic immobility', or the freeze response, and it kicks in as a last attempt to escape death. This can be a good strategy in the wild at least, like playing dead, as many predators lose interest in immobile prey.
If the prey animal survives , it quickly discharges the enormous amount of frozen energy by shaking, sighing and breathing deeply. It may also move in ways it wanted to but couldn't during the event because everything happened so fast. After all this, the nervous system returns to normal, and all other bodily functions also normalise. Life is resumed as if the threat had never occurred. There will be no PTSD.
Modern-day humans are often unable or unwilling to use the instinctual fight or flight under threat. We therefore go into the freeze state as the only other choice. This is often experienced as numbing or dissociation (spaced out). And this generally doesn't get released as in the case of the wild animals. Shaking and crying after a threatening event is something a sophisticated ‘together’ modern human doesn’t like to do - either because it may look silly or like a sign of weakness, or because it just feels 'too much'. This suppression lies at the heart of understanding trauma and why so many people – often unknowingly - are suffering from PTSD.
By not releasing freeze energy, we feel that the threat is still happening, keeping us effectively locked in the past. This can cause emotional problems (for example anxiety and panic attacks) and physiological symptoms - like digestive, breathing and sleep problems. Many of these symptoms have no obvious medical diagnosis and many of us are left with no mainstream support for our conditions. We may feel that the threat is somehow always with us in some shape or form, causing us to feel helpless and powerless without really knowing why. Carrying around unresolved survival energy can keep us hyper-vigilant, unable to relax or feel at ease. It can also keep us stuck in our heads and not really in the body, with a sense of always being one step away from the action.
Oh and by the way...
I've had clients come to me who have felt like they couldn't have PTSD because nothing traumatic had happened to them - or at least not that they could remember. And they often hold this belief that they should somehow be fine and well, compared to someone who had been in a natural disaster for instance.... Unfortunately, it's not that simple, so it's important to be clear: we all have our reasons for being traumatised by events, and they are usually complex and highly personal. Some of us had traumatic births or early bonding/attachment issues but no car accidents, big operations or earthquakes. For others, it's the reverse. Many of us have had a bit or a lot of both.
There is nothing to be gained by comparing different cases as they are all totally valid; if we're suffering then there is a reason for it and we need to address it without judgement. Below is a list of typical causes, or events that can be traumatic. But bear in mind, what's traumatic for one person may not be traumatic for the next...
The good news is our bodies, like those of wild animals, have an inherent and amazing capacity to heal and self-regulate, often against unfavourable odds. Our nervous system, psyche and body want to return to a state of equilibrium and wholeness. The list of symptoms at the top can be extremely debilitating and can make us feel like life is too much - right? But there is hope if we're willing to explore ourselves a little, have some courage, and can find the right kind of support....
Events that can lead to trauma
Motor vehicle accident
Child birth (for mother and infant)
Severe illnesses (esp. with high fever)
Neglect/abandonment of infant