By Bob Wentworth – First published Feb. 16, 2021. Last revised: June 6, 2022
What is psychological trauma?
Trauma – A persistent change in a person’s nervous system that occurs when profound challenges to survival or well-being overcome the person’s ability to process and cope with that experience.
Trauma typically reduces a person’s capacities in some ways. At the same time, sometimes those who have experienced trauma are sensitive to aspects of reality that others might not notice.
Trauma can arise from an isolated but intense experience, or as the cumulative result of an ongoing series of experiences. Trauma is personal, and some circumstances might be traumatizing for one person, but not for another.
It’s likely that most people experience significant degrees of trauma. This affects how people show up in the world, although the particular ways the effects of trauma manifest can vary from person to person.
Informally, trauma can be thought of as being like an unhealed wound in our psyche.
It’s a place inside us that hurts, and keeps on hurting. Our psyche typically organizes itself to protect us from directly feeling that pain, at least most of the time.
Sometimes something happens that reconnects us to that pain, to some degree. When trauma is re-stimulated, people can:
- Be “Triggered” – When we are “triggered”, we feel intense feelings, and the intensity is typically out of proportion to the specifics of what is happening in the present moment that has stimulated these feelings. There is likely to be “limbic hijack” in which core brain systems associated with survival (such as the amygdala) are activated and systems responsible for “executive function” (the prefrontal cortex) partly shut down. What we are feeling reflects not only the implications of what is happening in the present, but also a deep well of unresolved pain from the past.
- Disassociate – There are two types of disassociation. Both types of disassociation are strategies our brains use to try to protect us from feeling disturbing feelings.In one type of disassociation, our brain releases endogenous opioids, and we feel spacy and possibly blank, numb, or sleepy. (Some people with significant trauma may experience what seem like “trauma bubbles” – intermittent moments when suddenly their consciousness feels different and spacy, signaling that they have encountered something which activated their brain’s protective impulses.)
In the other type of disassociation, we shift our consciousness more into the left hemisphere of our brain. With this “left-shift,” we become more black-and-white, less holistic in our thinking, are often more judgmental, and disconnect from awareness of our body and feelings.
Why is it useful to be aware of trauma?
I find it helpful to be aware of the existence of trauma and watch out for its effects manifesting because:
- When trauma is re-stimulated in a person, this often has a major impact on how the person shows up and what their capacities are.
- There is evidence to suggest that most “bad behavior” reflects trauma-induced behaviors being activated. For me, understanding this supports compassion. It encourages a caring response rather than a punitive one—and such a response is likely to be more effective in creating a positive outcome. (Trauma-informed discipline and care have had transformative effects in schools and other institutional settings.)
- Tragically, when someone shows up in ways that are symptomatic of trauma, their behavior is often interpreted by others in ways that lead to reactions that exacerbate that trauma.
- When trauma is activated in the course of a conversation, it is very easy for the conversation to become non-productive or destructive, unless the activation of trauma is addressed in a skillful way.
- When what a person is feeling arises from an unhealed wound, then what is likely to be helpful in addressing those feelings may be different than it would be helpful if the feelings arose purely in relation to current events.
Trauma activation and conversation
Productive dialog involves people exchanging information, ensuring that “message received” is the same as “message sent”, and allowing themselves to be changed by what they receive.
When trauma is re-activated inside a person, resulting in triggering or disassociation, their capacity to process communication becomes compromised, often severely. If those involved in the conversation ignore the trauma activation and try to proceed as if it wasn’t happening, then the odds of the conversation having a satisfying outcome become poor.
When a person is triggered or disassociated, they need to experience a safe container that will allow them to find their way back to emotional equilibrium.
There are a number of ways support for restoring equilibrium can happen:
- If the trauma activation isn’t too extreme and the person is self-aware, they may be able to “hold” themselves in a way that allows them to self-sooth and find their way back to equilibrium.
- The other person might be able to “hold” the other person’s experience and receive it in a non-reactive, caring way which supports the other person to be able to self-regulate and restore emotional equilibrium.
- If a third party is present, sometimes they can create a “safe container” for all that supports emotional balance in being restored.
- Otherwise, ending the conversation and taking time apart may be the only way to restore balance.
From a trauma activation perspective, there are arguably three regimes in which conversation between two people can occur:
- Nobody is triggered or disassociating – Conversation can proceed “normally.”
- One person is triggered or disassociating – The person whose trauma is activated will have very reduced capacity to receive information from others, and may be limited in the ways they can self-express. Whether the conversation can continue productively is likely to depend critically on whether the other person is able to suspend their own concerns and focus on hearing, or giving space to, the person whose trauma is activated.
- Both people are triggered or disassociating – Both people need “holding” and likely neither has capacity to hold the other. This is a signal to slow way down, and maybe disengage for a while. It’s possible to navigate through such situations, but it requires a lot of self-awareness, self-responsibility, and skill to do so when your own trauma is activated.
This third regime can easily arise in an intimate relationship. Such situations become even harder to navigate if one or more people involved have an expectation that the other “should” be able to hold their experience, or “should” take responsibility for healing their wounds. It helps to bring in as much compassion as we can muster, for ourselves and for the other.
Discussing topics that are deeply meaningful to us, or connected to our identity, can easily lead to activation of trauma. That’s part of why conversations about differences in politics, religion, sex, etc., can be so fraught with difficulty.
The bottom line is: it’s wise to learn to notice triggering (or more generally, signs of trauma activation) and caringly attend to it when it arises, if you want to have connecting and productive conversations.
In Nonviolent Communication (NVC), we understand feelings as reflecting the state of our “needs” (factors in our experience that support us in surviving and thriving).
So, if a loved one is unable to meet with us, we might feel disappointment or loneliness stimulated by our need for companionship not being fulfilled.
Yet, sometimes, as a result of our unhealed wounds, we may have a heightened sensitivity with regard to certain needs. Maybe as a child we had a repeated experience of what was important to us not being heard and understood, in ways that had devastating consequences for our well-being. Now, as an adult, perhaps when someone seems to ignore or misunderstand us when we express something important to us, we feel intensely alarmed, afraid, or angry. We have what I might call a “frozen need” to be heard and understood, in relation to what matters to us. It is “frozen” in the sense that, to some part of us, this need is always un-met. We have a deep well of pain inside us about this, just waiting to be reactivated by some new experience of not being heard in the way we would like.
If someone has an active need “to be heard and understood” this can be addressed by taking the time to fully hear and understand them. However, if a frozen need “to be heard and understood” has been activated, hearing and understanding what is alive in a particular moment only addresses part of the situation. That’s because the presence of a frozen need also indicates a need for healing of the underlying wound. The frozen need is likely to resurface again and again, until that healing takes place.
With the right kind of sustained, insightful, caring attention, I do believe that trauma can be healed, and the associated needs can be un-frozen. Yet, in the world as it is, I think the reality is that most people don’t have access to nearly enough in the way of healing resources to heal all their old wounds.
The surfacing of old pain points to a need for healing. Yet, it’s important to not turn this into an unachievable demand that we or others “should” be fully healed before we can interact and engage together in life.
Given that we are interacting-while-wounded, what are some guidelines that can help us to navigate?
With regard to our own wounds it is helpful to:
- Come to recognize when we are feeling things that are tied to old wounds and are not just about what is happening in the present moment.
- Take responsibility for our old wounds, not blame those in the present for our reservoir of pain associated with frozen needs, and not hold them responsible for healing us (especially if they have not agreed to take on that healing role).
- Let others know about our particular sensitivities, and ask them to do their best not to “poke us where it hurts,” even as we do our best not to blame them if they do this by accident.
- Learn to recognize signs that you are triggered or disassociating, and learn strategies for applying self-care (and avoiding harm to self or others) when this happens.
With regard to others’ wounds it is helpful to:
- Come to learn about others’ particular sensitivities, and be willing to do our best to care for them.
- Learn to recognize signs that someone might be triggered or disassociating, recognize that this is likely to get in the way of attending to other things, and learn strategies for addressing this (e.g., slow down or take other steps to support the other in coming into emotional equilibrium before proceeding).
- Commit to not using beliefs like “you’re triggered” or “you’ve got a wound that needs healing” as an excuse to invalidate or ignore the present-moment needs that another is seeking care for. Such situations call for extra care, even if you’re not taking on the larger role of healer.
Different interventions for different states of nervous system
I’ve appreciated the idea that, when a person is in distress, the type of intervention that is likely to be helpful may depend on the particular state of their nervous system.
So, for example, interventions that operate at the level of words and ideas are more likely to be helpful if the part of the brain that processes words and ideas is still “on line,” but may be less effective if there is a full “limbic hijack” in progress.
When it comes to ourselves, or someone we are close to, it may be good to learn some more physically oriented practices to support emotional regulation when we’ve become dysregulated. Things like taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, EFT-style meridian-point tapping, HeartMath™ meditation, (consensual) holding, and many other practices can help a person’s physiological state come back into equilibrium. After that basic physiological stabilization happens, a person is likely to be more able to benefit from things like empathic reflection or self-empathy.
Sarah Peyton, author of the book Your Resonant Self, teaches an enhanced version of NVC-style empathy which she calls “resonant empathy”, which can be helpful in addressing the sort of deep emotions that arise when supportively engaging with trauma. Sarah studies interpersonal neurobiology, and has greatly contributed to my understanding of trauma.
[This is the end of the essay. However, the following diagrams offer some related ideas that might be helpful.]
Disempowering Model of How We Work
What happens in the outer world “makes us”:
- feel certain things
- think certain things
- do certain things
Feelings just happen, a bit like the weather, and either don’t mean much, or are taken to mean things about what others are “doing to us.”
Empowering Model of How We Work
How we understand things to work:
- We observe the world through our senses
- We interpret our raw observations, making up stories about what is happening and what it
- Based on our story, we assess whether it seems likely that our needs (for surviving and thriving)
will be met or unmet
- Our feelings indicate our sense of our needs being met or unmet
- Our feelings color our thinking
- We choose how we speak and act based on our feelings and thoughts
- Sometimes our feelings are more intense than might be expected. This is usually due to our
story linking to an old unhealed wound in which there may be a reservoir of pain. Unhealed wounds are associated with “frozen needs”, where a need was profoundly unmet in the past, and we continue to carry this sense of unmetness with us.
- Feelings are like “indicator lights” that tell us when our needs could use attention.
- Noticing that stories are different than observations (and that likely many different stories
would fit the same observations equally well) can help us to take our thoughts less seriously and
be curious about other possibilities.
- Being aware of making a choice can help us pause long enough to consciously make a choice
that is more likely to serve us.
- Focusing on/honoring our needs (not metness/unmetness) has many benefits.
- By learning to discern when unhealed wounds/frozen needs are affecting us, we can speak in
ways that acknowledge this, and can realize that what we need is care for our wound, and (in the long term) healing.