Trauma. This is such a buzz word right now. I’m grateful in some ways that more people and leaders are recognizing the impact of trauma and doing something about it. As with many buzz words, though, the word can become confusing.
What is trauma?
How do I know if it applies to me? No one ever hit me growing up, this isn’t something I went through.
Let’s start from square one. First, in the past we have tried to define trauma in two categories:
-Big T trauma
-Little T trauma
Big T trauma includes what comes to mind for most people when they think of trauma: natural disaster, physical or sexual abuse, car accident, military combat, domestic violence, and so forth.
Little T trauma includes the “small” or more subtle offenses such a shameful parent, a verbally abusive partner, bullying at school, etc. Most often this comes from the home environment when our parents, for one reason or another, were not able to be our emotional and/or physical security when we were children. This can come from parents who place a child’s performance over emotional well-being or parents who are overly punitive or overly permissive.
Then came along a third type of trauma: vicarious trauma. This third type recognized that witnessing or hearing of someone else’s trauma can have similar effects to actually experiencing the trauma, which largely included first responders and people in helping professions. I’ve also seen this vicarious trauma impact foster or adoptive parents who are raising children with intense needs.
But wait. What if these categories aren’t even the important of trauma? What if there is more at play here? Yes, understanding the types of trauma can broaden our perspectives of what can actually cause symptoms of stress disorders. For example, Little T trauma, which I call environmental trauma, helped us to understand that trauma doesn’t just come from terrible events. It can come from the environment. Similarly, vicarious trauma acknowledged the trauma that our first responders and caregivers might experience. This has been so helpful.
Categories aside, the core definition of trauma is “the perception of threat, weighed against what resources we have available to get us to safety.”
When we are not able to get to safety because the perception of threat is too great or our resources are too few then our bodies get stuck in a self-protective response. Ok, so what does that even mean? Let’s rewind here.
Responses to Trauma
Our bodies are incredible at perceiving threat and getting us to safety or just keeping us safe. We have automatic responses that do such. These include: fight, escape, freeze, collapse. Fight and escape are our initial best strategies, but what if they don’t work? What if we are still faced with the threat of death? Or significant harm? Or witness actual death or harm? We get stuck. The body gets stuck.
In some circumstance’s the body will freeze or collapse which leaves the same predicament. No escape. No way out. And if this is how the body comes out of the threat… it gets stuck in time. What does this mean?
This means that the same self-protective responses (fight, escape, freeze, collapse) show up over and over again even when the threat isn’t there. How does this show up in day to day life?
Fight: Feeling irritated about small things, becoming abrasive verbally or physically, throwing things, hitting other people or animals, etc.
Escape: Leaving relationships when they get too vulnerable, hanging up on people when overwhelmed, storming off, avoidance of doing things such as making phone calls or completing task.
Freeze: Feeling panic-ish but not being able to move, heart racing but having a loss of words, feeling a lot of tension but having indecisiveness.
Collapse: Drinking to escape, excessive screen time, spaciness most of the time, feeling like life is passing by like a dream, feeling out of body.
Keeps Showing Up
These are just a few examples of each response that might show up day to day. These are examples of how you might know if your body is still trying to escape if the threat is over. Or self-protect because it feels like you are still a child in an unsupportive environment.
Our mission at Dawn is to help people understand the impact even when they feel like they are “crazy” or that the past “wasn’t real” or uncertain about whether they fit the mold for trauma. Stay tuned for understanding more about how trauma might affect you and what to do about it.