The Lessons of Trauma
Like it or not, we all experience trauma. But sadly few people – even those who deal with trauma professionally – know clearly what trauma is, how trauma impacts us, and what we can do about it.
This is because trauma makes us uncomfortable. In general, people avoid thinking too much about the things that can cause them harm. But this avoidance causes problems. When trauma occurs many people are taken by surprise and are often unprepared to protect themselves and others from harm. Discomfort with trauma also makes it harder for us to see that the lingering, sometimes invisible, effects of trauma can and often do affect our health and well being for years after the harm is first endured. This contributes to walls of shame and stigma built around survivors that can make it harder to get help. This prolongs suffering and hampers our efforts to reduce traumatic harm. Like it or not, the less we talk about trauma, the more harm we all endure.
This where my work comes in. I’m a trauma theorist. I've spend a lot of time thinking, writing, and speaking about trauma. I’ve seen this problem from both sides. I survived severe, complex trauma as a child and I’ve worked as an advocate to help people better understand trauma as an adult. Learning the lessons of trauma has been crucial to my own healing. And I believe that learning these lessons can empower individuals and communities to successfully respond to the life-altering challenges we face everyday.
Perhaps the most important lesson of trauma is this: I am not alone. Trauma is a fundamental and inescapable part of the human experience. But there is hope. Trauma can be scary, but it’s not invincible. If we learn the lessons of trauma, we can transform our lives and our world for the better.
WHAT IS TRAUMA?
Before I share my definition, I invite you to try something. Get a piece of paper and finish this phrase,
“Trauma is _________”.
Go ahead I’ll wait. (And If you want to share your definition of trauma I invite you to tweet it to me @chander2nyc with the hashtag #Traumais)
Here’s my answer.
Trauma is an experience of harm while powerless.
A more complete definition of trauma is: Physical, spiritual, or emotional harm endured or witnessed by an individual while unable to prevent it occurring to themselves or to others.
A clear definition for trauma is important. It can empower us to better, and more effectively cooperate across professional, social, and personal lines in the work of healing and prevention. I’ve refined this definition over many years. But it is not THE right definition. Rather, this is A helpful framework for thinking about and discussing what trauma is. This definition blends my survivor's perspective with the insights of many others – trauma experts from the fields of psychology, medicine, social work, and, of course, other survivors. This definition empowers me to heal and thrive in the present by stripping away layers of shame and stigma from the past. I know it helps others as well.
TRAUMA AND ABUSE
It is important to know that trauma and abuse are not interchangable terms. Every act of abuse is a kind of trauma. Not every trauma is an act of abuse.
Hurricanes and earthquakes are clearly traumatic events that are not abusive in nature. The tornado that tears apart a home isn’t caused by the actions of anyone within.
By contrast any act - or failure to act - by someone that leads to another living being experiencing trauma can be labelled abuse. Both the father who beats his child and the mother who neglects hers are acting abusively.
This is the next lesson of trauma - Abuse is trauma rooted in human behavior.
Abuse is identified by the experience of the survivor or victim. We don't ask whether a tornado "wanted" to destroy the homes it damages. The same idea applies with abuse. It is the impact and not the intent of a perpetrator that matters. And, just as we would not blame a person who's home was destroyed by a tornado, neither should we blame a person who has endured the traumatic harm of abuse.
This distinction between trauma and abuse gives us another important lesson of trauma: Humans can increase or decrease the amount of trauma in the world.
HOW DOES TRAUMA IMPACT US?
Most people know trauma is not a good thing, but few of us understand just how much harm it can do to people and to society. Complex biological, psychological, and social responses are triggered when we endure trauma. Many of these reactions are predictable and measurable. When endured for extended periods and/or at vulnerable points in our lives, trauma can cause changes in our brains and bodies that can profoundly influence how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. Decades of research make clear that even brief exposure to trauma can cause harm that lingers in the body and the mind for many years. Although more research is needed to explain why and how this occurs, the evidence shows strong links between exposure to trauma and higher risks for addiction, depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, suicidal impulses, and many other negative health outcomes.
We also now know that trauma is far more common than many people believe. According to the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey, more than half of the population report surviving at least one form of significantly traumatic or abusive experience in childhood. And many professionals including veterans, law enforcement, social workers, and medical personnel, see all kinds of trauma daily. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anyone can go through life without experiencing trauma. It should also be clear that traumatic events change societies just as much as they do people. This makes clear another lesson of trauma – All of us are impacted, directly or indirectly, by trauma throughout our lives.
Sometimes the harm of trauma is short term and negligible – like a scrape or a bruise. The body is equipped with ways of healing from these kinds of lesser wounds without needing much effort or input on our part. However sometimes trauma and abuse causes deeper wounds. When exposure to trauma occurs early in life and/or is chronic in duration, these deeper wounds can demand every ounce of strength we have in order to endure. We cannot say that suffering a trauma will always cause a person grievous, long term harm. But we neither can nor should presume anyone who does suffer as a result of trauma is weak, flawed, or deserving of scorn. This is another of the key lessons of trauma: Being vulnerable to trauma isn’t a flaw, it’s part of being human.
As dire as that may sound, it actually points towards the last, and perhaps the most important, lesson of trauma: Healing is possible. Even in cases where abuse is chronic or the trauma is severe and life-changing, compassion for the survivor and access to support make remarkable and even miraculous healing possible.
WHAT WE CAN DO ABOUT TRAUMA?
This is perhaps one of the most important questions we can ask. If trauma is unavoidable, what should we do?
There is no simple answer. There is no path through life that offers total safety and security. Nor can we simply allow trauma and abuse to occur unchecked. To some people, this means it is imperative to try and accumulate as much power, or wealth, or influence as possible. Power is both a sword and a shield, protecting them from being hurt while enabling them punish wrongdoers. This belief is understandable, but it is fatally flawed. If it is impossible to avoid trauma through life, our efforts at preventing it will always fall short. Further, the conflicts that stem from trying accumulate power inevitably create and condone more abusive harm than they ever prevent.
I think there is a better path forward. Instead of asking “How do we stop bad things from happening?” I believe we need to ask “How do we reduce harm?” These are not the same questions. The first question focuses our efforts on prevention, the second makes room for healing. The first question is about power, the second is about empowerment. What may seem like a subtle difference can literally make all the difference in the world.
If we learn the lessons of trauma we can begin making that difference. Speaking frankly and openly about trauma does not create a mindset of victimization and fear. Rather, a trauma-informed world is the most liberating, empowering, and compassionate place for humans to live.
THE LESSONS OF TRAUMA
I am not alone.
Trauma is an experience of harm while powerless.
Abuse is trauma rooted in human behavior.
Humans can increase or decrease the amount of abuse in this world.
All of us are impacted, directly or indirectly, by trauma throughout our lives.
Being vulnerable to trauma isn’t a flaw, it’s part of being human
Healing is possible.