The simple definition of trauma is that it is a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time. Merriam-Webster gives a more comprehensive definition of trauma. 1. a: an injury (as a wound) to living tissue caused by an extrinsic agent b: a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury c: an emotional upset. 2. An agent, force, or mechanism that causes trauma.
What makes each of these explanations interesting when understanding trauma, is even from a medical perspective, physical trauma begets emotional and mental trauma. Trauma and the body’s collective response to it, is interconnected.
Peter Levine PhD has written and taught extensively on the subject. He notes that trauma is a highly energetic response and eventually the body, in its desire to manage thresholds and homeostasis, shuts down this intensive energetic response. This leads to residual fragments of sensory body memory that remain painful and stuck.
In giving a quick snapshot of the definition of trauma, Levine’s work and ideas on the subject, one could surmise that these painful interbody-connected memories distill down to the perspective and the level of intensity the experience held for the client. Treading these spaces with our clients can be visceral and tender ground. I find that pacing this type of therapeutic work is essential, coupled with a thorough examination of what coping mechanisms the client has to lean on before revisiting these painful places within extensively.
Trauma work is deep interior work, where one examines the cracks or breaks on the very framework of the self, and decides to heal, repair, and fix these places. I continue to be in awe of the process when a client steps into wielding the courage to face these difficult spaces, and allow a shift in perspective with the intent to heal within. Often individuals do the best they can with the current skill set they have when trauma occurs, and often that skill set was not at the time, enough to manage the intensity of the experience. Our body and brain does an excellent job initially then of packing/compartmentalizing these painful experiences away so that the collective body can continue to function.
I liken trauma work to a hard workout, illustrated by lifting weights. The day after a tough lifting session, the body is sore, and often even sorer the next few days. The emotional body does heavy, heavy lifting when healing from past pain. It can feel overwhelming, scary; often an intense amount of emotions can flood a client. Developing an appetite for excellent self-care after intensive sessions is a key part of the process.
Also, I find progress to a client while doing trauma work feels relative and hard to track. Emotional heavy lifting seems less tangible to physically feel and see, versus the effort and progress quickly seen in physical weight lifting. Clients can minimize just how hard they are working and how deep they are going. Developing steady awareness, validation, and noting to the client where progress is being made in sessions is crucial to helping individuals track how they are doing. I find even though the process is hard, they are less frustrated with the doing the work, because they understand how and when progress is being made.
Pain packed away can only be evaded so long. In looking at the mental picture of an extensive wound, one might get away with not addressing it immediately. Perhaps on the short term, this wound not tended to, could be ignored or just covered up. However, in the long term, the festering of the wound brings alarming attention to repair it. A wound this extensive not tended to, can create the loss of the very limb itself. Or the whole body goes into sepsis because of the infection, and will likely die very quickly without immediate medical intervention.
This is a powerful metaphor to capture how trauma can affect the interconnected body. While the physical body will not have an infection because of traumatic experiences, the mental and emotional bodies surely do. It is then a great benefit to any and all that have experienced trauma in their life, to do the necessary self-inventory, examine their inner framework and choose to heal. It is also vitally important for the therapist and client to assess the individuals current ability to manage the difficulty of doing deep interior work, and if that ability is lacking, take the responsibility to strengthen healthy coping mechanisms.
In closing, I highlighted the word choose because when dealing with trauma and exploring our inner depths, where pain has been stuck and held, it is important to remember healing is a choice. There is a cost/benefit to staying in pain or choosing to shift and heal. Understanding and examining either choice without judgment, keeps the necessary need for safety with each session in tact.