What is “trauma” and why is everybody talking about it?
Rarely a day goes by without hearing about some form of trauma in the news. We hear about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), childhood trauma, traumatic injuries and even the trauma of everyday life. It’s one of those words that is used so much that it has almost lost its meaning. And more to the point, what does trauma have to do with psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and understanding how the mind works?
There are several ways to think about how life’s trauma’s shape us. Try to imagine, for instance, a plank of wood with a large knot in it. The wood may be sanded and smoothed out by an expert woodworker. However, whenever it becomes very humid, the knot of wood sort of pops out because of the moisture in the air. We can think of psychological trauma in a similar way. There may be a life event that occurs in our childhood, for example a death of a loved one, a tragic accident, a house fire or even a lost pet. Our ability as children to take in and make sense of these upsetting events determines just how these events stay in our memories. Without kind, caring adults to help reassure, comfort and help children make sense of their feelings, a child will likely feel overwhelmed or confused. And even the best of parents may not be able to notice their child’s distress. That event then becomes a big part of how they understand themselves, their relationships and the world around them. If they’re not able to fully “digest” the event, that is, to really comprehend many of the upsetting feelings they might have felt. They may very well remain highly attuned to situations that remind them of the upsetting event. For example, a child who has lost a beloved grandparent with whom they were very close, without sufficient understanding of what their feelings about the loss meant to them, may have difficulty allowing themselves to get too close to others. In this example, the “knot in the wood” is the early experience of loss. The “high humidity” is difficulty feeling close to people.
Traumatic events can certainly overwhelm and even disable some people. It’s even more puzzling when we may see two people, like siblings, live through the same events and each come through it very differently. It’s important to remember that we each make sense of the world around us in our own unique ways so even that when two people may be exposed to the same upsetting event, one may have suffered it as traumatic and disabling while the other walks away without many scars. A more dramatic example of this is in war when two soldiers in the same battle may have very different psychological reactions.
People are often very resilient and designed to solve problems. We all want to be healthy, have good relationships and feel free of excessive worry. However, sometimes we find ourselves troubled by feelings that don’t make sense but may, very often, be traced back to a time in our lives when we couldn’t fully make sense of all the strange and novel things happening around us. When those upsetting feelings persist and get in the way of our friendships, love relationships, work or general sense of well-being, we might want to wonder if there was “something” that has shaped our way of seeing world that may contribute to these problems, i.e., a trauma.
As psychotherapists and psychoanalysts, we listen very carefully to many things our patients tell us. One of the most important things is what, if any, patterns of behaviors we hear people describe as they are talking about their lives and their problems. Those patterns may very well be a window to understand what sorts of traumatic events a person might have had and need help with. For instance, if someone says they have trouble forming or keeping close relationships, we might begin to listen for and ask about early experiences that may have disrupted their ability to trust that they will not be abandoned or suffer loss.
Just as when a broken bone becomes stronger when it heals properly, our early traumas, when helped properly, makes our minds and our selves stronger and more resilient. Psychotherapy that helps people not only think differently but more deeply understand how trauma has affected them enables that process of growth and greater strength to occur.