WHY Trauma Is So Traumatic 😫Jul 26, 2022
I’ll never forget the day. I was in graduate school and learning about trauma and my teacher asked:
“So class, WHY is Trauma so Traumatic?”
I mean, we’re all studying to be therapists so clearly we know that trauma is traumatic but when she asked why, we all just sat there.
Fast forward 18 years, I was discussing a traumatic incident with someone and they said to me “Shifi please, this trauma happened years ago. It is long forgotten. Can’t we just move on from it? I feel that therapists hold onto childhood stuff for too long. I assume because it’s good for their business…”
Seriously? You don't realllly think that, do you?
SO, we must talk about trauma for a minute.
For starters, it is very important to note, even if two people suffer from a similar traumatic event, still the response will be unique to each of them. For example, there are some people who have even suffered from abuse, illness, or a toxic relationship - and yet they are resilient and are not as affected by the trauma. We will discuss how that is possible in the future. Hopefully.
But in general, those people can (unintentionally) make it difficult and confusing for Trauma sufferers, who are made to feel weak for not “getting over it”.
Now let’s delve deeper. Bear with me. Because it’s actually FASCINATING!
A traumatic event is stored in the part of the brain that is called the amygdala. The amygdala is the most primitive part of the brain. Which means - in regular people language - the amygdala doesn’t use language to read a situation, and it also doesn’t factor in time or space. It sees pictures and reads any given situation just as someone who is looking at a photo would: without any context and without any words to explain the situation.
But here’s the complicated part: the amygdala is also the part of the brain whose main purpose is to keep us safe. The amygdala is our “smoke detector” and it goes off any time it thinks we are in any type of danger. When the amygdala “sounds the alarm”, it puts us into what we call “fight or flight” mode. (Special shout out to our amygdalas 🎉 for keeping us safe! Usually anyway.)
Here’s an example: this is like putting a child (one who does not yet have the ability to speak or fully comprehend) as a security guard.
Fight of flight is exactly what it sounds like: when our amygdalas read any type of danger, our bodies prepare to either FIGHT the “perpetrator” of the danger or FLIGHT the dangerous situation.
Let’s say someone was in a car accident where a RED CAR hit them and hurt them. The next time this person sees a red car - even a parked red car - his amygdala will signal to him that he is in a danger zone, and it will prepare him to fight or flight! Because the amygdala has a great memory and remembers that a red car once hit him. However it doesn’t have great comprehension to understand that this particular red car is not a threat.
But now, all red cars have become TRIGGERS of a traumatic response. Plus a lot more than that. So did the clothing that person was wearing, and the perfume she had on, or the song that she was listening to right before, and the place in which it occurred. Anything that had to do with the car accident, may send messages to the brain that danger is near.
So our bodies gear up to fight or flight this red car and protect ourselves THIS time, only to then realize that the car is parked and we are safe. But by that point, our bodies have already gone through an additional albeit slight traumatic response in preparation for a pseudo trauma.
We all have our “red cars.” We all have our people, places, smells, and songs of what triggers us to have a traumatic response.
Remember, our amygdalas do not fully distinguish when we are currently in danger vs. when we were in danger. The trauma is still living in our bodies. And we are still reactive to it.
And this my friend, is why trauma is so traumatic. And this is why trauma lives on. And that is why therapists know that we can’t just “forget” about the experience.
So, how do we treat trauma?
Ahh. Now that is a very good question.
Want to learn even more? Here’s a video about Triggers! Click here!
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