Only two short years ago, I didn't understand the reality of trauma. Even as a social worker who had been exposed to a fair share of trauma, both in my life and my work, there was so much I didn't know. I still have a lot to learn, but I believe if people knew a few important things, we could make a significant difference in healing ourselves and our communities.
To start, everyone has trauma stored in the body. Yes, you have trauma. It's part of the human experience. There are numerous categories of trauma: ancestral, birth, developmental, racialized, marginalized, environmental, vicarious, medical, shock, etc. These boxes are helpful for our broader understanding of trauma, but they don't describe all possible ways people are traumatized. A better question than "Do I have trauma?" is "How does trauma live in my body?"
Trauma is a public health crisis. Now more than ever our nervous systems are experiencing a daily assault of fear, division, and grief. Trauma is the antecedent to the mental health crisis, the chronic illness crisis, structural racism, climate change...the list goes on. Unresolved trauma prevents us from being a cohesive society working together for the greater good. But we can do something about it.
Equipped with the right information and support there is hope for a better future.
The key to understanding trauma is understanding the nervous system and the chronic stress response. Likely you know that when you feel threatened, your sympathetic nervous system enters the "fight or flight response." What you may not know about is our other nervous system, the polyvagal system. This system is responsible for our feelings of connection and rest, but when fear is present it causes us to drop into the "freeze" state of immobilization. Repeated encounters with "fight or flight" and "freeze" cause our bodies to default to a chronic stress response.
Some people live in harmony with their trauma. Bad things happened to them and they were met with compassion and love from others. Their nervous system integrated the events and there was no shift into a chronic stress response.
For others, the body became so used to living in a state of chronic stress or "dysregulation," it became the default setting. The switch was flipped to the on position, and wasn't able to feel safe enough to turn off. When the chronic stress response is present, learning how trauma lives in your body is helpful: Do I have distinct patterns of muscle tension? Am I always on high alert? Do I feel amped up all the time? Do I always feel fatigued or exhausted? Am I often immobilized and feel weighed down?
To oversimplify our complex nervous system--there are 3 neural states: optimal arousal, high/hyper-arousal and low/hypo-arousal. We move in and out of these states a thousand times a day; however, you likely have a "home base." People who have ever suspected or diagnosed with anxiety default to high-arousal and people who have ever suspected or diagnosed with depression default to low- arousal. Many people who are diagnosed with both or other mental health issues oscillate between high and low, rarely landing in optimal arousal.
Our goal becomes to learn what optimal arousal feels like in our particular body. Optimal arousal can also be referred to as "calm vitality." It is the feeling of being alive, but not amped up. For me, this feels like relaxed muscles, slow and even breath, grounded feet, and a clear mind, but it will be different for everyone.
Once we learn what optimal arousal feels like, we want to amplify it by noticing it when it is present. By taking a mental snapshot of the feeling, we can teach our nervous system to rewire in favor of calm vitality. If we do this enough, it becomes our new default. This is regulation. It happens slowly over a long period time, in gradual shifts. Eventually, the body can let down the protections it has built up over time and allow the trauma to integrate in a way that allows us to be present with life.
For most people therapy, especially somatic psychotherapy, is required to shift into optimal arousal, because when our body is in a constant state of dysregulation, we need to co-regulate with another, before we are able to self-regulate.
What everyone needs to know about trauma:
1. If you feel worthless, it has nothing to do with your worth.
The people I want to communicate to the most are people who don't know their own worth and value. I know you, I see you.
Here is the truth: You do not feel worthless for no reason. You are not innately and uniquely flawed. You are not bad at the core.
What you are feeling is a by-product of developmental trauma.
I know that it feels like it is part of who you are, down to your bones, and that developmental trauma couldn't possibly explain how big it feels, but it is, in fact, the only thing that explains it.
I describe this feeling as...everyone else in the entire world belongs to a club and for some reason you are not invited to be a part of if. The people in the club deserve love, compassion, and for good things to happen to them, but for some unknown reason, you don't. And the feeling doesn't stop there, it permeates everything in your life, because you are constantly afraid that others will find out that you don't belong to the secret club and reject you.
Oh, of course, of course you feel that way. And I will do whatever I can to help you feel otherwise.
In developmental trauma, as our nervous system is wiring, it wires towards fear. Fear is the absence of love and belonging. Even if you were loved, if your nervous system was wired with fear, you were not able to feel the love in the way it was given. So we need to go all the way back to the start and help you feel the feelings of love and belonging.
The difficult part is that you can know it cognitively, but you have to feel it to believe it. That is the hard part, that is the part that takes time and the loving care of others.
When you know what love and belonging genuinely feels like, slowly you learn that you are a part of the club, that you were always a part of the club, and you will always be a member of the club...no matter what. No. Matter. What.
My happiest moments in therapy are when people start to feel a glimmer that maybe they do belong. Maybe they are human just like everyone else is. Maybe it is okay to make mistakes. Maybe they do have worth and value, not because of what they do, but because of who they are.
If it's possible, then it's possible for you, too.
2. Dysregulated thoughts sound like the truth in your mind...they are not.
Have you ever heard the phrase, "Don't believe everything you think"? Well, it's some of the best advice out there.
Our inner dialogue speaks in the tone and prosody of our own voice, so it sounds authentic. It also sounds familiar, because it has likely spoken in a similar way since before you can remember. But that doesn't mean what our inner dialogue says is true.
Your thoughts don't come from your mind, they originate in the body. When your body is dysregulated, so are your thoughts.
A dysregulated body will convincingly tell you things that aren't true:
Hyperaroused thoughts sound like "worst case scenario thinking," superstitions, or perfectionistic expectations.
Hypoaroused thoughts sound like self-loathing, hopelessness, and "what's the point."
Just by the content of your thoughts, you can identify your neural state. This can be very helpful, unless you believe your thoughts, then it's one of the most challenging things you will deal with in your lifetime.
This is why I am working to educate people on what dysregulation sounds like in your mind. If you can identify dysregulated thoughts and use it as a signal to regulate your body, you can change your neural state. If you believe dysregulated thoughts, it will trigger the stress response and then follows the familiar spiral of rumination.
Yet, here is another thing that I likely will not be able to "convince" you is true. You will have to feel it for yourself.
So, imagine a time when you were regulated. Maybe after exercise or when you were petting your cat or dog. Think about the quality of your thoughts? When we are regulated our thoughts slow down, they are reasonable, and they are either neutral or compassionate.
However, even when we think we are regulated, we can have dysregulated thoughts, because neural states can change in an instant. That's why we need to learn to label them as "dysregulated thoughts," and notice them as early warning signs that we are leaving regulation. If we can catch ourselves leaving, we have a much better chance of returning to optimal arousal.
If you remember one thing from this column, remember, "Don't believe everything you think."
3. Disease and trauma are inextricably linked.
Many people think, I don't have trauma, so why did I get sick? That's because the conversation about trauma up until this point has been about capital 'T' Trauma—being exposed to extreme violence or tragedy. Now we know that developmental trauma, the trauma that happens to you as your nervous system is wiring, is also linked to disease. This is trauma you may not even remember or may have happened before you were even born and was passed down to you by your ancestors.
Perhaps even the word "trauma" muddies the waters, but it is the best word we have to work with right now. All that we need to know is stored in the body. If your default is the chronic stress response, which is true for those with complex illness, it informs the path to recovery.
To understand how trauma is linked to disease, we need to understand that the nervous system is the mastermind of the body. It presides over all the other systems. So if your nervous system is dysregulated, so is your immune system, your endocrine system, your reproductive system, your muscle-skeletal system, and your circulatory system. If we can rewire the mastermind it will have ripple effects throughout the body.
I use the words "healing" or "recovery," which some people don't relate to. I think to be healed is different than to be cured. To be cured is to have no current disease process in the body. To be healed or in the process of healing is to turn towards life. You may still have scars, pain, and other symptoms, but you feel alive and are able to live a fulfilling life. That is the goal of nervous system healing.
Maybe someday we will understand this link even better, but for now, I know that if there is dis-ease in the body, working with your nervous system may be an integral part of your treatment plan.
4. There is hope.
Healing is possible, but there is no quick fix and it is not an easy road.
What I love about the neuroscience of trauma is that it is hopeful. Yes, our wiring is out of order, but we can reorder it through a caring and compassionate relationship. Then, we can go on to live our lives, fully and authentically. Sometimes the diagnosis model is not hopeful—you have mental illness and it will be with you for the rest of your life. You can take medication and learn strategies to cope with it, but little else. Note: I am mindful there is no panacea, and I believe in the power of medication to help bring in the edges of trauma, in order to gain access to the nervous system.
The challenge is that it can take years, which is a large commitment of time, money, and effort. But there are shifts along the way that make it worth it.
Trauma leads to all or nothing thinking. We are either fully broken or fully cured. But there are millions of pull offs on the road to healing and each one is worth getting out of your vehicle to see the view.
5. We need this information at this moment in history more than ever.
This is a time of massive collective crisis.
We must meet crises with love and compassion. But the messages we are inundated with on social media are messages of hate and division.
If we can meet this collective crisis with love and compassion and process it in the moment, it will move through. Trauma is trauma because it didn’t move, it got stuck. We need to keep it moving, so the memories of this adversity will last, but not be stored in the body.
Protestors need to process their experiences. Black and brown people need access to resources to process trauma. People recovering from COVID-19 or “long haulers” need to process the new body they live in. Those whose trauma is being triggered by this moment need to process the impact.
Society needs everyone to know this information. Keep processing, keep moving, keep turning in the direction of life whenever possible.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of what everyone needs to know about trauma. That's why I am writing a book about trauma for the general public. There seems to be a gap in the literature for books about trauma that aren't traumatizing to read. My book uses humor and pacing in order for it to be digestible for those with trauma. Stay tuned.
In this moment, I am meeting your pain with love and compassion, even if you don’t know me. Your life has value to me in this interconnected web in which we live.
"The time will come when, with elation, you will greet yourself arriving at your own door." - Derek Walcott
I'm Kerry (She/Her/Hers) and I am a licensed therapist, writer & speaker. This is a positive space focused on how to thrive in any situation and the transformative power of suffering.