What Makes Trauma Trauma?

The word trauma comes from a Greek word meaning “wound.” A traumatic experience wounds the mind. It changes the physical structure of the brain, just as a broken arm changes the physical structure of the bone.

What Makes Something Traumatic?

Two dynamics interact in order to cause trauma—and neither dynamic is intrinsic to the event proper. These two dynamics are a feeling of helplessness combined with abandonment by those who could have helped but didn’t.

The essence of trauma is helplessness combined with abandonment by potentially protective caregivers.

It is for this reason that a seemingly "insignificant" experience can lead to trauma. Without minimizing the damage resulting from the traumatic event itself, most often the event itself is not the most damaging part of the broader experience. What really wounds the brain is the helpless terror (perhaps of not being able to move your body or use your voice in such a way as to make the awfulness stop), and then the concomitant realization that you are utterly alone (that no one is coming to your rescue).

Same Event, Different Wounds

Consider the following example: two school age girls are harmed in identical ways.

One girl runs home to her parents, tells them what happened, and is met by emotionally responsive and engaged parents who hold her, connect with her, and begin to help her process what happened. (And then begin the process of providing whatever additional medical/emotional/psychological care is appropriate.)

The second girl runs to her place of solitude. She knows from experience that telling her parents won’t result in engagement and care (Dad won’t believe me, Mom will tell me I should have known better than to play with that boy.) She provides her own comfort, making sense of the experience the best her little self can from a child’s incomplete understanding of the world. She goes to sleep that night feeling alone. 

Same event, two very different experiences. In a brain scan, the brain of the first girl will look very different than the brain of the second girl. Why? Because the experience of trauma does not reside primarily in the event proper but in the subjective experience of helplessness and abandonment by those who are supposed to be there in a time of need.

Helplessness

In trauma, you lose a sense of yourself as someone who can take effective action to stop what is happening to you. Here’s how Serene Jones puts it in Trauma and Grace:

“Trauma survivors can lose confidence that they are effective actors in the world because, in the original event, they experienced a state of powerlessness. They come to believe that their actions do not matter or cannot effect change. A state of deep passivity and depressive anxiety often follows. Along with this loss of will comes a loss of hope."

On top of the powerlessness of not being able to make the traumatic event stop, the trauma survivor must then contend with the additional powerlessness of not being able to stop the emotional pain related to the trauma. This often leads to an immense sense of hopelessness, and eventually, despair.

Abandonment

After a client shares a story of harm—emotional, physical, or sexual—I often ask, “After it happened, who did you talk to first—your mom or your dad?” It’s a disarming question, and usually a devastating one. Why? Because most people who have been abused did not talk to either parent because they somehow knew in their gut that it would not do any good.

Then comes the nearly reflexive objection, “Well, I’m not sure that was my parents’ fault. After all, I was the one who withdrew from my parents and kept them out.” It is frequently a tightly held objection. But we are relational beings. When something upsetting occurs, we are created to seek comfort and protection from those around us. There are few things that are more hard-wired into our brains than this instinct.

There's a Reason You Didn't Tell Your Parents

If you did not run home and tell your parents when something bad happened to you (whether that something was sexual harm by a neighbor or mockery by a classmate), then there is a very good reason for that. In your earliest weeks, when you got hurt, you did everything you could to let your mom know you were hurt and to get her attention and care.

What happened between those early weeks and the age of your sexual harm or middle school mockery? It’s not that you “started shutting your parents out.” A 12 year old brain doesn’t suddenly choose to disregard its default way of obtaining comfort and care! You learned through countless experiences—no matter how subtle and brief those experiences may have been—that telling Mom would not result in the attention and care that you desperately needed.

"But others had it a lot worse..."

Whenever someone begins to engage their trauma, I inevitably hear some version of the following: “I feel like what you are calling my ‘trauma’ is relatively small. I mean, I’m not starving in war-torn Syria. My father didn’t beat me every night. Those are the kids who have trauma.” Does a broken arm hurt any less because it’s not the worst pain you could be in? If a 7 year old broke her arm, would you say to her, “Come on, at least you’re not a burn victim.”

Do you really want to go on minimizing your trauma? In fact you do, not because your trauma somehow didn’t damage your brain—but because you don't want to:

  • look at the repercussions of the trauma
  • receive the comfort and care of your therapist (which is excruciating)
  • admit that you couldn’t overcome your frailty. 

Instead of minimizing the harmful experiences in your life, what if you let them provoke you to curiosity about how they have affected you? What if you let them invite you to a posture of kindness to yourself as a child?

What’s Next?

Have you told some of the painful stories of your life to a friend or counselor and then wondered together, “Did that experience traumatize my brain? Did it physically wound the structure of my body (brain)?”

To read more about trauma, check out The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.

copyright © 2017 Adam Young