Most people think that a trauma is an event. You get abused as a kid, or violated as an adult. Someone is in a violent car accident. A soldier sees his buddy blown up in front of him, or loses a limb himself. These kinds of things are what we commonly think of as trauma.
Trauma, however is not an event, but rather the result of what happens inside a person as a reaction to an event.
Specifically, trauma can occur when someone experiences an event that is overwhelming, an event which that person does not have the ability to stay present with.
Trauma is something that occurs, ultimately, within our nervous system and brain.
You see, we all have this thing inside us called an autonomic nervous system, a wonderfully complex apparatus that governs how our body reacts to stimuli, both internal and external. One branch of our nervous system will respond to a potentially threatening event by kicking in and activating our fight, flight or freeze mechanisms; then when the event is over, another branch will kick in and bring us back down out of that arousal into a place of base-line regulation, at which point we can go about our day.
This is what happens in a healthy, well-regulated nervous system. Unfortunately, there are very, very few people on this planet who actually have a healthy, well-regulated nervous system! What actually happens to most of us, and this is due in a large part to the cultural norms and expectations we are brought up with, is something like this…
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Jump Ramp Catastrophe! (A short story)
When I was thirteen, even though I was somewhat pudgy and not tremendously coordinated, I was really into skateboarding. I liked to think of myself as a badass.
One day, I was hanging out with the group of cool kids who really were badass skaters, and one of them unveiled his brand new jump ramp.
In a idiotic attempt to prove myself, I decided it would be a good idea to be the first one to try it out. I ignored the intuition of my wildly protesting nervous system, my gut feeling that I was headed directly towards injury and embarrassment. I didn’t listen.
I rocketed down the street, hit the jump, and flew high into the air. At this point, my feet lost contact with the board, I lost my vertical orientation, and I fell smack onto my tailbone from about five feet in the air amid howls of laughter from the cool kids.
I stifled all reaction to the crash.
With the exception of the involuntary yelp! which I let out upon impact, I was silent. I clamped down hard on all bodily reactions. I immediately got up and pretended to be fine. I stiffly walked into the house and played “Top Gun” on my friend’s Nintendo.
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Let us pretend for a moment that I wasn’t brought up in a culture that says it’s not ok to show your pain, especially if you’re male, especially if you’re surrounded by peers, especially if those peers are the cool kids. Let’s pretend that those cool kids were actually people with an understanding of how to respond to a stressful event.
In this wonderful imaginary scenario, had I allowed myself to have a natural reaction to this event, a reaction that my nervous system knew how to have and wanted to have, it probably would have been something like this:
I might have allowed myself permission to scream and howl, whimper or cry. I might have curled into a ball and rolled around. There is no one script that will always happen in a certain order, but the body will always have an instinctual knowledge of what it needs to do.
My peers would have surrounded me and held a loving intention that my body knew how to heal.
Eventually, my body have might have begun to tremble for a while, which would signify the de-activation of the stress response, until gradually that would have subsided and my entire being would have spontaneously drawn in some very deep breaths, which would have signaled to me and my wise, imaginary peers that my system was returning to homeostasis.
I would have gotten up very, very slowly and taken the time to see the ramp and my skateboard. I would have been supported in slowly taking in all my surroundings, as I re-oriented to both the present moment and my physical body.
I probably would still have been very sore and would have needed some type of physical assistance to help my body recover, but I would not have been traumatized because my nervous system had been allowed to do what it needed to do.
Instead, unable to go through the natural reactions it needed which would have a enabled a deactivation of the stress response, my system went into a state of freeze (which I was already predisposed towards due to early/developmental trauma — more on that in a bit). All those instructions that my brain and nerve endings were sending out got stored and locked into my body – resulting in a chronically tucked tailbone, a locked down hip, unhealthy curvature in my mid spine, and frozen emotions of grief, shock, and shame – there to wait 35 years until I was able to reach all that dissociated energy and emotion through the wonderful work of a nervous-system-based form of trauma therapy called Somatic Experiencing (SE).
I was able to renegotiate that experience and reclaim the energy from that frozen wound, and many others. I was able to restore regulation to my poor nervous system after a childhood and young adult life full of chronic stress and trauma, which is why I am now a SE practitioner myself.
You see, it’s never too late to resolve past hurts and harms. Our system is waiting for a chance to rediscover its capacity to self-regulate and to let go of held energy that has been cycling ‘round and ‘round, looking for an exit. We can give it this opportunity by having a firm resolve and willingness to heal, and by providing ourselves with the necessary kind of support.
Now I want to go a bit more into how exactly trauma gets stored in the system, and this is a bit technical but it’s very important information so please read carefully.
When faced with a threat, injury, or some other kind of stressful event, there is a set of procedural instructions that gets written automatically and unconsciously by our autonomic nervous system.
What this means is our system says, “Release these chemicals! Activate these muscles! Run! Fight!” And if we can’t run or fight, we have another, older part of our reptilian brain that takes over and says, “Freeze!” and then, hopefully, “Come out of Freeze!”. If none of these instructions can complete their cycle they remain in the system — like having the gas and brake both on at the same time, all the time, underneath the surface.
If those instructions are not allowed to complete, if we override them due to social conditioning or fear, or if the circumstances of the situation do not allow us to complete them (i.e. — we get hit by the bicyclist before being able to jump out of the way, or the trauma happened when we were a baby and we literally couldn’t defend ourselves or even move much at all), that energy can stay locked in a loop within our system and cause all sorts of problems. That’s what trauma is.
To avoid nervous system dysregulation (trauma, PTSD) and the accompanying physical effects (tics, frozen joints, chronic pain, IBS, autoimmune disorders, cancer, etc.), emotional disorders (chronic fear, numbness, explosive rage, etc.) and mental problems (anxiety, depression, addiction, ADD, schizophrenia, borderline, bipolar, etc.) the body will need to complete these instructions by letting them, and the accompanying emotions express through the system. This has to happen slowly over time (because of the complexity of the nervous system and all it’s connected to) and this process needs to be supported by a knowledgeable witness (which can be oneself to an extent, granted one has the right education and skills).
We have come to understand that all the various issues I mentioned above, in fact almost all physical, mental, and emotional health problems, can be traced back to unresolved trauma.
This is because the system that gets dysregulated by not being able to complete its survival responses, the autonomic nervous system (ANS), is the same system that governs ALL automatic functions of the body; immune function, hormonal secretion, digestion, barrier keeping in the gut, enzyme secretion, cell repair, breath, heart rate, circulation, etc.
The ANS also profoundly affects our brain. When we are sympathetically dominated (fight/flight) we are ruled by our limbic and reptilian brain, when we are parasympathetically dominated at the extreme end, which is the high- energy response of the Dorsal Vagus Nerve (the freeze response), we are trapped in our brainstem with little access even to the limbic brain. When both these survival responses are stuck in the ANS on loop mode we have much less access to our neocortex, the part of our brain responsible for higher cognitive function, memory, communication, creativity, spiritual abilities, concentration and empathy.
The world lives in survival mode and this is what that means at the physiological level – being ruled by our reptilian and limbic brains and by the survival responses stuck in our autonomic nervous system that make the world and other people feel dangerous, or absent.
It doesn’t need to be some big, single event that overwhelms us either. It can just as easily be the prolonged experience of verbal abuse, or neglect, or chronically stressed or addicted parents when we are young.
It can be as simple as never expressing yourself when you are hurt, or angry, or never having boundaries and always putting others’ needs first.
Here is a short illustrated guide that shows how even a commonplace experience like yelling or sparking can lead to trauma.
Granted, there are truly horrifying events that no one could escape being traumatized from, but a lot of the time our trauma comes from experiences that we could successfully process and integrate, if only we had the proper support and education and were able to allow ourselves to be the animals that we are.
For example, a robin is having a merry time chirping and fluttering about one morning. Then he senses a shadow above him. Yikes! There’s a falcon up there about to dive! The robin’s autonomic nervous system kicks in and sends out a set of procedural instructions to fly, dammit, fly!! Unfortunately, our robin flies right into your plate glass window and falls to your deck, stunned. The more primitive part of his brain then takes over and puts him into a freeze state.
If he didn’t damage anything too seriously, and if you just let him be, he will eventually stagger back to his feet and then start to shake and tremble and flutter his wings. His body is coming out of the freeze state by completing the procedural instructions (fly, dammit, fly!) that were rocketing through his system when he slammed into the window.
He flies off to continue enjoying his morning. No trauma.
It’s not the experience that traumatizes us per se, it is the degree to which we are able to complete the automatic and unconscious instructions that were sent out as a response to the experience that will determine whether or not we become traumatized.
If we have forgotten how to access the natural resources inside of us that can process the experience, or if we never learned to access these in the first place, or if we are not allowed to by circumstance, or if we clamp down on ourselves to stop the experience because of social norms and conditioning, the result is the inevitable fragmentation of our system and psyche. Our nervous system becomes dysregulated and we will have a harder time dealing with future stressful events, leading to more dysregulation and further fragmentation.
If we do not have all of our sensory equipment online to be engaged with the present moment, if our system is busy all the time managing unresolved survival energy, we are less likely to see that oncoming car, or to notice that threatening person or situation, or we may constantly feel under threat when we are actually safe. A part of our body may be frozen from a past injury, so then we might not be able to get out of the way of that bicyclist, or negotiate that slippery patch of ice.
Trauma that is unresolved will eventually lead to more trauma. A nervous system that is dysregulated is predisposed towards future dysregulation.
Common Practices & The Ramifications of Early/Developmental Trauma
One of the practices most often espoused as being effective for achieving inner peace and healing is the practice of meditation. As someone who has been a die-hard practitioner of meditation I can testify that meditation can be very useful but, in our present situation, it often is not.
Same goes for yoga, breathwork, and the many techniques out there that claim to help heal trauma and regulate the nervous system, such as the Wim Hof method, EFT, TRE, EMDR, etc. I’m going to focus on meditation here but these techniques and methods generally aren’t very effective for the same root reason: the physiological reality of early/developmental trauma.
There are many forms of meditation, but they boil down to two basic kinds.
In one kind of meditation you are meditating on a specific thing, be it a mantra, visualization, breathing method, or something else.
The other kind of meditation is the kind taught by our friend, the Buddha, where the only thing you focus on is your body and felt experience, as it is, without any sort of mantra or visualization, this is also called mindfulness.
The first kind, where you are focusing on some sort of thing, can be helpful to focus one’s attention and “quiet” one’s mind, but it is a temporary and illusory experience. Say someone has persistent negative thoughts. When they find their negative thoughts arising, they begin to focus on their mantra, until the mantra becomes more powerful than the negative thoughts… ahhhhh, peace. But not really.
That person is momentarily changing the nature of their repetitive thought loop, they are not dealing with the loop itself. It’s like taking a cassette tape of music that you don’t like and then recording music that you do like over it, then saying to yourself, “hey, I made that tape I don’t like disappear!” Sure, it may bring a temporary sense of increased peace and well being, which is great, but it’s ultimately not accomplishing much in the way of actually resolving the source material.
What’s generating the thought loop in the first place? The answer is: a dysregulated nervous system, and sorry, but you cannot fix that with a mantra or visualization.
The other kind of meditation, where one simply notices themselves as they are without trying to change anything, is the kind that I practiced intensively for years and years. Specifically, I practiced Vipassana as taught by S.N. Goenka. This form of meditation, which the Buddha brought to us, can indeed be a very helpful and useful tool, but only if the practitioner is well-regulated enough to experience their body as it is.
Anyone who has a moderate to high level of dysregulation in their nervous system, which is most of us, will have a great deal of difficulty practicing this without dissociating, because their body, as it is, is a chaotic and painful place to be.
What happens for these folks is one of two things.
One, they become overwhelmed, panic and leave the practice, which is the best possible outcome for them, because at least they allowed themselves to flee from an experience that was overwhelming them.
Or two, and my gut feeling and personal experience tells me that this is what happens most of the time, the person dissociates and goes more into the freeze state which is already occurring within them. This second option is truly the most insidious, because the freeze state can feel a lot like “peace.”
In order to understand this, we have to understand what happens in the human system as a result of early/developmental trauma.
The bulk of our trauma in western, industrialized society is not the obvious kind. Yes, there is plenty of outright abuse and violence that happens, but the vast majority of trauma in our culture is early/developmental trauma that results from situations that are chronically stressful, but not necessarily explosive or violent; situations that have become normalized and are not generally understood to be traumatic.
In order to develop properly an infant needs present, attuned, well-regulated caregivers who are not chronically stressed and they need those caregivers, or at least one of them, to be present most of the time for around three years. This is not because of some idealistic notion, this is biological fact.
When an infant is born their nervous system and brain are far from complete in development. The infant needs care, attunement, close attention and minimal stress in order to properly develop the parts of it’s nervous system and brain responsible for healthy social engagement, empathy, and higher cognitive function.
The main system I’m talking about here is the Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC) — this portion of our autonomic nervous system comes in only minimally formed and is developed and myelinated after birth based off of the caregiver’s VVC, and it is this part of our nervous system that enables us to deal with and come down from stress in a healthy way, engage socially, and empathize with others. We cannot maximize our access to the Prefrontal Cortex — the part of our brain that lets us do things like meditate, create art, problem solve creatively, and think complex thoughts — without a healthy Ventral Vagal Complex.
Without at least one attuned, present, well-informed, and relatively unstressed caregiver that is around consistently for at least the first three years of life our VVC cannot form properly and so our entire system cannot develop to its maximum potential. And how many of us had parents like that? Our society is currently structured in a way that makes that almost impossible.
When an infant experiences this lack of proper care necessary for its development, when they are surrounded by parents and siblings that may be loving, but who are stressed and in survival mode, that baby’s nervous system will interpret this as a threat big enough to engage it’s more primitive survival mechanisms — which do come into the world active and fully functional.
This may mean the Sympathetic (fight/flight) system activates and you have a babe who is crying a lot, easily startled, colicky, rashy and generally upset.
And then, if the stress in the environment (meaning in the parents) is not resolved, if this threat to the infant’s development seems to be pervasive with no end in sight, eventually the little one’s system will learn to bypass fight/flight and go directly to freeze, or shut-down. This is the emergency brake of the Parasympathetic branch which the system employs if fight/flight (crying, ‘fussiness’, rashes, colic, etc.) have been unsuccessful and the system senses that it is under mortal threat.
I know this may be hard to accept, but the research is very clear at this point. Even a loving home, if it is a chronically stressful environment (meaning the majority of home environments in industrialized society), will over time become perceived by a developing nervous system as a mortal threat. If the mother is overly stressed during pregnancy, this maladaptive wiring can even be established in the womb.
There are many other kinds of experiences that can also lead to this kind of early/developmental trauma, experiences that are not recognized by most as trauma; things like circumcision or even life-saving surgeries as an infant or child, a parent being incarcerated or addicted, pressure to conform to societal or familial norms, witnessing conflict between caregivers with no resolution, and even inherited genetic predispositions from ancestors who were traumatized — all of these things will often lead to early/developmental trauma.
Here is a long interview between my wife, Irene Lyon, and our mentor Kathy Kain who specializes in working with the ramifications of early/developmental trauma. It’s an hour and 40 minutes, but do yourself a favor and watch it all. This is absolutely crucial information for us to understand if we want to move forward into a positive future.