What Is Trauma?


In the mainstream mental health world, trauma is a word reserved for a select few - like people who've been physically abused or people who've been in a natural disaster. In reality, trauma is universal. When you see a child crying and their parents are ignoring them, they are experiencing something traumatic. It doesn't matter that adults consider their sadness silly or overly dramatic. YOU have been traumatized in ways you probably don't remember, and the reason this matters is not so that you can wallow + play the victim. It matters because denying + diminishing the fact that we're traumatized prevents us from healing - both individually and culturally.

To understand trauma, we must first understand that trauma is a literal split in the psyche. It's something your nervous system couldn't solve or make sense of, and so a small part of you stays stuck in the fear + resistance to it. When we say something was a "shock to the system," it means:

  • Something happened that: A) was very unexpected and B) evoked a strong negative emotion like fear, grief, or shame.

  • Something disrupted our idea of what is normal/possible (what SHOULD happen) so severely that it altered how we see the world. We no longer feel as safe and assured as we did before the traumatic event. There is often an element of confusion with trauma too - because we don't fully understand why or how it could've happened, our brain keeps trying to make sense of it (OR our brain blocks it out as if it never happened).

This is a bit over-simplified, but you can think of trauma as: surprise + strong negative emotion (especially at a young age) = trauma

"Why did this thing happen? What did I do wrong? Why wasn't it prevented? How do I avoid this happening again?"

These are the kinds of questions we are left with after a trauma, though we don't think these things consciously if the event happened in childhood. Children's brains are not as analytical. They do not assess situations as much as they simply experience events in the moment. So instead of having conscious questions about what happened, it's more of a vague sense of unease because the negative emotions have not been resolved. When the emotions are not resolved, the brain can't move past it. It's similar to rumination - when we can't solve something, the brain gets stuck going over it again and again (Ever been through a breakup and racked your brain over what went wrong? This is a perfect example.)

When we're adults, we may ruminate because the trauma is fresh + our critical thinking capacity is sharper. But with childhood trauma, you may not even remember the event, or you may downplay the negative impact it had on you, having no genuine awareness of the pain it caused. This is because the adult brain looks at children's emotions as trivial + exaggerated. "That wasn't even a big deal!" But this is a grave mistake because it undervalues children's sense of safety and wellbeing and gaslights them (e.g. you're not upset, no one hurt you, knock it off!) It also tricks adults into believing they have no trauma and nothing to work through. The only people in our culture who we consider 'in need of therapy' are the ones who experience the most obvious + volatile traumas like physical or sexual abuse. The rest goes completely untreated.

When we tell ourselves or others that our/their trauma is something to ignore, it's equivalent to telling a crying child to just 'suck it up.' It does nothing to resolve, and everything to shame and suppress issues that could've EASILY been resolved! Not all trauma needs years of therapy and psychoanalysis dragged out. Much of it just needs to be acknowledged - FULLY felt + processed - to make genuine progress and feel a weight lifted from you.

So what does unresolved trauma do? It subtly (or dramatically) alters our beliefs, actions, and how we feel in day-to-day life. We're trying to avoid the trauma happening again, even if it's something as seemingly benign as being laughed at when you were a kid. Remember - if it shocked you and caused significant negative emotion, there was very likely a negative imprint made by that event. Consciously, you've moved on, but the parts of your brain that handle fear remember these traumas like they were yesterday - and they are hyper-vigilant about preventing a repeat situation.

Most traumas are never fully processed because there is too much shock/discomfort to process in the moment, and because therapy is stigmatized in our culture. Furthermore, many therapists don't truly understand how to help someone process + transmute negative emotions, and so they end up helping the person ruminate. Thus the trauma simply sits in the subconscious waiting for you to be fully present with it. Year after year, this shocked aspect of you is basically put on pause (until we are triggered by a reminder - a similar representation of the trauma).

Our nervous system remembers these events because sometimes, our survival depends on it. For example, if you were attacked by an animal, it would be very dangerous if your nervous system didn't alert you of the trauma. You might later walk up to a wolf + get killed because of your lack of fear. However, our nervous system cannot tell these real dangers apart from perceived dangers (for example: people laughing at us and making us feel rejected should not keep us from taking a risk we want to take). In other words, the nervous system is not logical. It is instinctual.

So regardless of whether your logical mind considers something "traumatic," your nervous system will override this to do what it thinks it needs to do to keep you safe. You cannot reason with your nervous system. You can only work toward understanding, listening, + cultivating feelings of safety when fear is activated.

Subscribe for regular updates from the Exist Better blog

Recent Posts