Overlooked trauma

For some time now, I have been reflecting on the meaning of the word trauma, or more precisely, what does it mean to say something was traumatic? It is not always the more obvious things that leave us traumatised. We can too easily dismiss an experience, when comparing it to other peoples "bigger " more obvious trauma.

In reality, a traumatic experience is not so much defined by the type of event, but more about how a situation impacts upon an individual, or community. It's defined by a meeting of an external situation with the unique intricacy of each person. It is too simple to say x event = x

For one person, an event can be completely overwhelming and scar them for many decades, for others, the same event can be challenging and awful but they do not suffer symptoms and are not troubled by it in the long term.

Some of the factors that effect this could be the individuals history, what they have been overwhelmed with in the past? In addition, it is hugely effected by how the event is met and processed by those around the person. If it is pushed out of awareness for example and not allowed to be spoken about by a family or community, then this creates more suffering on top of a difficult situation, leaving it unresolved and more likely to cause trouble later on.

Given this, it is no wonder that the range of experiences that can be felt as traumatic is much wider than we might imagine. For me this was a real eye opener.

For example, routine medical procedures, even dental surgery can be felt in this way. Fevers and illness. Experiences of loss or losing ones job also. It could be witnessing an event. It could be being left as a baby or child. The circumstances of our birth can be traumatic... Or giving birth.

And in addition to this, we can add to this the effect of being brought up by someone who was themselves traumatised. This could easily be overwhelming for a person. The term ancestral trauma belongs here, where the unprocessed experience of our ancestors somehow echoes on through the generations.

For myself, it was the breakup of my family when I was around 2 years old. It is easy for me to find myself saying, “well it wasn't as bad as all that”, but I have seen how this comes from a part of myself trying to make it smaller ( and therefore more manageable) In truth, I am confident these circumstances and how they were then dealt with in my family were overwhelming for me. The echoes and pain of this still roll on in my life. And it is important to remember, this experience happened in a context - in a time when divorce was much less common ( I was the only one at school with a step dad) and the effects of it much less spoken about. These days, there is much more support and advice available to families in this situation. Even so, it is still a big thing for a child.

So when we find ourselves saying, "it was nothing really" perhaps it is something worth paying attention to. Perhaps it comes from a part of us trying to make it all ok.

It is about honouring the truth of a situation, not making it bigger than it is or much more commonly making it smaller than it is.

Why is all this important? As Peter Levine says, trauma is a fact of life but should it be a life sentence. Too many people are struggling with the effects of un resolved trauma, and overlook the events of their life thinking the events were too small or not obviously traumatic. But these events live on in us in a way that limits our way of being in the world. For myself I could describe it as being limited by anxiety and fear, by behaviours that keep me away from strong emotional experiences. By keeping myself comfortable and safe a lot of the time, I miss out on the riches of being alive and taking risks. Thankfully this pattern is shifting.

So often we end up living a life from a restricted place of managing and coping, but not thriving or growing. And this is such a shame. We are capable of such wonderful things.

For more about working with trauma in focusing read this. And if you would like to use Focusing or SE to explore trauma read these pages and feel free to contact me.
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