A Broader Definition of Trauma

When I talk about trauma, I’ve found that a lot of people tell me, “Well, I haven’t had any trauma, no lightning bolt has hit me from the sky or heart wrenching tragedy happened to my family”… or I hear parents discuss their children and tell me, “I don’t know why they are struggling… we gave them everything… food, clothes, what they asked for Christmas…” Again, these are extremely limited definitions of trauma. Trauma isn’t just the BIG things that happen to people. In fact, as Dr. Gabor Mate put it, “Trauma is what happens INSIDE of us.” Trauma can be any event or experience in which we left it seeing ourselves, the world, or others in a different (and usually negative or scarier) view. This can be based on what really occurred or what we PERCEIVED (thought) occurred and the way we made meaning of it or INTERPRETED it. For example, when I was a kid, I remember my mom telling me “If it hurts, don’t do it.” Pretty simple and practical advice for a 4-5 year old. In fact, I had a small history of being a hypochondriac so after my mom (understandably) stopped believing me when I said “my stomach hurts”. Over time I created a belief/rule that when I was sick or hurting, I don’t say a word and suffer in silence instead of the much more logical belief/rule: “only tell your mom your sick or hurting when you are actually sick or hurting”. I took this belief/rule so far that in 7th grade I came down with a horrible cold which I would later realize was the flu. It was finals week, and in my efforts to not show my pain, I went to school despite feeling achey, feverish, and a little dizzy at times. By the 7th hour, I remember going into my “guitar class” where all the kids would pile their back packs into a corner and then soon after waking up in that pile of backpacks. I had passed out at school and knew that after waking up in a haze of backpacks, it was likely time I admitted I may need to go to the doctor. I still went to school the following day.

Luckily, I have since learned that it’s okay to be sick. It’s okay to say when you are hurting. But the belief/rule my kid brain created from some practical and even warranted comments from my mom, changed the way that I respond to my own (and others) illnesses until I rewrote that rule later on as an older teen/adult. This is a pretty mild example of what “trauma” can look like. Now, I wouldn’t diagnose myself with PTSD from this trauma since it only impacted a small area of my life and didn’t cause the night terrors, constant anxiety, and other PTSD symptoms, however, it helps to showcase how even the small traumas can impact us and how we walk around in the world. So when I say “trauma”, I mean all sorts of experiences, words spoken, words NOT spoken, neglect, neutral comments that were misinterpreted by a child brain, painful comments that were exaggerated or personalized by a child’s brain, and relational trauma. It’s not just about tornadoes, divorces, and rape. Trauma happens to us all in varying degrees. I’ve found that I can often spot how trauma manifests in my own life when I over-exaggerate a reaction (usually in retrospect and not in the heat of the moment). When I get overly mad, hurt, sad, irritable, jealous, stuck, or depressed in response to a situation — there’s usually some underlying rules or beliefs or trauma stored in my body that hasn’t been resolved. Try this for yourself. Think of the last time you got REALLY mad and then in retrospect thought, “Well, I’m still right for being mad, but THAT mad? Why did I lose it so much? Say hurtful things? Retreat for so long? Or Do something I feel shame about now thinking back on it?”… Was there some belief, value, or way of interpreting this event that has anything to do with your past? This is a little tricky to connect the dots directly so I usually ask more questions to get to the root of it. However, for now, I just wanted to give a working definition of trauma so you can see how trauma impacts all of us: the big, medium, and even the neutral thing our momma said to us about not doing something if it hurts.

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