What is Trauma?

As a trauma survivor, I’ve encountered many people who think trauma is just a matter of “holding onto the past” or “not getting over something.” They believe trauma is just an emotional reaction that someone can choose or not, and that people who live with post-traumatic stress or other issues related to their trauma are choosing not to get better.

These beliefs can be incredibly harmful to trauma survivors–and they are incorrect.

Trauma is caused by an experience that causes extreme mental, emotional, and sometimes physical distress. This experience might be a one-time thing, such as a car accident, or ongoing and long-term, such as abuse.

When someone experiences a traumatic event or series of events, they aren’t just “scared” or “upset.” Trauma, particularly long-term trauma, causes changes in the structure and function of the brain, which in turn can cause physical symptoms including autoimmune disorders.

The brain is usually structured to react to “threat” by engaging in a defense behavior. This is often called “fight or flight,” though “freeze” is another reaction and is actually more common. (It’s often safer to be still than to try to run away or fight back.) We don’t consciously choose which reaction we have when we’re faced with danger. It’s an autonomic thing.

When someone experiences long-term trauma or even a single event, the parts of the brain responsible for the defense behaviors reacts to “threats” that may not even exist. These parts of the brain don’t distinguish between real and perceived, or between “now” and “back then.” Those distinctions are a function of the conscious mind, but the reactions are part of the autonomic system. So the defense behaviors kick in regardless of whether there’s actually a threat present. The stress hormones released at times of threat also kick in.

People don’t choose to experience trauma. They don’t choose how they react to trauma. And they don’t choose the changes in their brains that cause them to continue to react to trauma even after it’s ended. 

All the “positive thinking” and “light and love” in the Universe won’t repair a trauma-altered brain. There are treatments that are effective in helping to re-rewire the brain to lessen those reactions, but it takes actual work and often the support of professionals. Unfortunately, many of us who are trauma survivors are shamed by coaches and practitioners who claim to want to help us because we can’t “light and love” ourselves out of the effects, and we may need accommodations or modifications to their services in order to access them without being retraumatized.

I’m now offering consultation to spiritually-based practitioners and coaches who want to learn more about how trauma affects people and how they can create more trauma-sensitive practices. Visit the Evolve Your Business page for more information, or the Schedule with Me page to set up a complimentary inquiry call and find out how I can support you.

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