how we support children, adolescents, and adults

A New Perspective
on Trauma

A New Perspective
on Trauma

Survival brain is key to trauma healing

Dr. Gabor Mate is reframing trauma as an overwhelming threat you don’t know how to deal with. It is not about the bad things that happen to you. Rather, it’s more about understanding how the body responds to being exposed to an overwhelming threatening event. Trauma is fundamentally a disconnect from self because it is too painful to be ourselves when someone or something is hurting us. The consequence of disconnecting from self results in the inability to regulate or manage our emotions.

Our brain is an organ wired for survival. The brain develops through interaction with its environment, which impacts a child’s development. We know that children’s traumatized brains look different on MRI scans than the brains of non-traumatized children. We also know that emotions help brains evaluate safety in relationships which is why it is exceptionally damaging when a child is traumatized by a trusted person. Abuse by a parent is significantly more hurtful than harm from a stranger. For example, if the brain perceives that we live with the parent who is hurting us, the physiological threat response system remains sustainably active as an adaptation to living with your perpetrator. This type of environment will keep the tap of stress chemicals running, eventually exhausting our immune system, numbing our pain, and blocking us from learning to manage emotions.

THE STRESS RESPONSE SYSTEM

The threat response system which controls the production of stress chemicals is designed to keep us safe and alive when a stressor is present. Traumatic events are painful for us to experience. This is why the body’s physiological response to trauma results in the production of stress chemicals that motivate us to adapt to the stressor by fighting, freezing, or fleeing the threat. Those stress chemicals remain active in our bloodstream when we are continually exposed to stressful environments, such as being in a class where the teacher yells at their pupils all day long or living in a household where there is continuous stress.

These stress chemicals are controlled by one aspect of our central nervous system, known as the autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is a sub-system of the autonomic nervous system. It has been identified as the system within the brain that helps us respond (fight, freeze, flee) to threatening situations. The stress chemical responses allow us to endure the trauma without really “feeling” it. This is what Dr. Mate means when he says, “trauma has a lot of wisdom in it”. The stress chemicals disconnect us from feeling anything at the time of the trauma to protect us from enduring the pain of the stressor.

THE WISDOM OF TRAUMA

Why would being disconnected from feeling be “wise”, especially since emotions help us evaluate safety in relationships? Dr. Mate reminds us that it’s very functional to be disconnected from feeling at the time of the trauma because it spares the individual from feeling the impact of the traumatic event. In short, the body protects the individual from their overwhelming experience. However, we need to learn how to re-connect to our emotions once we are ready. Although, If the stressor continues to persist, it’s almost impossible to re-connect. This means we will withdraw in relationships, so we don’t have to feel emotions that we don’t know how to deal with. It can also mean that when I have “gut” feelings, I won’t notice or follow them, thereby creating risky situations for myself.

Processing trauma is not about reliving the experience. Instead, we want to learn something about ourselves from the overwhelming experience. The biggest takeaway from the trauma response, as uncomfortable as those physical sensations of fear can be, is that your body protects you from re-experiencing the traumatic event. Trauma is a wound we sustain from a traumatic event.

RECOGNIZING A TRAUMA WOUND

Dr. Mate uses scars to explain the characteristics of a trauma wound. When a wound is exposed, it’s sensitive, especially if it has not healed. If someone touches our psychological wound it will naturally cause a reaction when someone exposes our psychic sore spot. We may yell, shut down or run and hide. Imagine when a scar on our skin heals. The skin has fewer nerve endings in that area, therefore less “feeling”. It is usually more inflexible and rigid in that area of the scar. There would be little organic growth, and the skin in that area would be restrictive vs supple like the other uninjured parts of your skin.

Wounds from trauma are sensitive like a scar on the skin. They cause immense pain, yet our skills are compromised to be able to defend against what has happened to us. Consequently, our trauma responses and imprints become inflexible and rigid like a scar on the skin. We often can’t “feel” anything.  We are numb to our needs. We become numb to our feelings and “gut” instincts. Our mindset becomes restrictive, making it very difficult to adopt and maintain a growth mindset needed to defend ourselves. How many traumatized people do you know who are stuck and struggle with black and white, restrictive thinking, or overreactions?

CONSEQUENCES OF STRESSFUL ENVIRONMENTS ON DEVELOPMENT

As I mentioned in the blog, Promoting Healthy Attachment Bonds, humans have a special need for connection, love, being heard, held, validated, and valued. There are two ways we can inflict a wound upon a child without ever touching them. We can hurt them by raising them in stressful environments such as high-conflict homes where emotional assault is the norm or in classroom environments where the teacher resorts to yelling to maintain classroom control. The second way you can wound a child is by abandoning their needs.

It is important to remember that we are feeling creatures before we are thinking creatures. Failing to recognize the value of feelings and emotions is a trauma often imposed on children. “Stop crying or I will give you something to cry about”. How many of us grew up hearing statements like this? As a society, we are too focused on improving the intellect of our children when we haven’t yet invested in teaching them about their emotional intelligence and its value. If people only knew that crying helps reset those stress chemicals that are creating a heavy strain on the immune system, then maybe they would refrain from communicating such harmful statements.

HEALING FROM TRAUMA LEADS TO THE TRUTH OF YOUR EXISTENCE

Our earliest experiences beginning in the womb, form the template of who we believe we are, how we believe others perceive us, and where our place is in the world. Dr. Mate says that the common template for all inflictions, mental illness, and physical disease is trauma. He reminds us that pain is universal to being human, and there will always be a gift in the pain. Trauma treatment can help you learn what that gift may be, even if it takes time to uncover. There is no value in perpetuating pain toward ourselves or others simply because we have experienced trauma.

As we work through our trauma, wisdom will reveal itself. The body always keeps the score. The therapeutic process can reunite us with the beauty of our existence that the traumatic event or our hostile environment may have hidden. Always remember that our trauma responses and imprints are not defining us. Instead, we want to work through those faulty schemas because when you change the beginning of your story, you can change the whole story about you and your existence.

If you’re wondering how you can begin to change the trajectory of your trauma, download our free resource entitled, 10 Ways to Break the Cycle of Trauma. Discover how you can begin to gain a new perspective on trauma.

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