A New Understanding of Trauma

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Trauma. The word lands heavy, evoking thoughts of a fragile mind subjected to extreme instances of devastation, violence, brutality, and depravity.

Googling the word itself yields this definition: “A deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” It goes on to offer a tangible example in a sentence: “A personal trauma, like the death of a child.”

No doubt this has been the way in which societal conventions have steered thinking toward trauma. But as our knowledge into the complexities of personal, psychological growth and development continues to deepen, we as informed, educated and aware citizens can no longer keep such a narrow view.

Trauma is not relegated to survivors of terrorist bombings, or to those who participate in large-scale combat. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is no longer a mental condition that belongs to military veterans alone. We are all, in some form or another, afflicted with the same disorder.

That is not to say that the entire population of the civilized world should be institutionalized, but it is fair to say that the more one learns about the nature of trauma in relation to personal growth, the more it is plain to see that stress and trauma play significant roles in shaping our experiences of the world around us.

An expanded definition, provided by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, describes trauma as: “direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury; threat to one’s physical integrity, witnessing an event that involves the above experience, learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death, or injury experienced by a family member or close associate.”
It goes on to say that, “memories associated with trauma are implicit, pre-verbal and cannot be recalled, but can be triggered by stimuli from the environment. The person’s response to averse details of traumatic events involve intense fear, helplessness or horror. In children it is manifested as disorganized or agitated behaviors.”

Let us first examine the opening part of the expanded definition, with a simple example as real and as old as human thought itself:

A child touches fire, and is burned. The child is now afraid to touch fire, for fear of being burned again.

This is an elementary example of what occurs in a traumatic experience. The child directly experiences an event that involves serious injury, even potential death. The memories of that event are recalled, and may be triggered later on by something in the individual’s environment.

Even if the child does not actually touch the fire, others may describe in gruesome detail the harm inherent in fire, with strong cautions to avoid it at all costs. This achieves the same goal, as the APA describes. The child still avoids fire out of fear, instilled not by personal experience, but by influence from others.

In the light of this elementary example, can you, or I, or anyone, say with all honesty that they have not experienced some form of traumatic event at some point in their early development?

You touch an exposed wire, you get an electric shock. You play near a wasp’s nest, and you get stung.

It seems as simple as physics. Cause, effect. Action, reaction. Stimulus, response.

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When trauma occurs to the brain, it leaves an indelible mark. How large and how lasting a mark depends on the variables in play. The severity of the original stimulus, the sensitivity of the child (or adult), the amount of peer support and education (or lack thereof), and the frequency of repeated stimuli are among factors which have an affect on the individual’s brain.

If a child receives a slight burn, they may gain a respect for fire and may, in fact, become quite adept at working with it, or in close proximity to it. If, instead, the child nearly dies in a house fire, that individual may never dare go near fire for the rest of their life, or may avoid living in wood homes, more prone to catching fire. We say the second child has been traumatized by fire, while the first child merely “learned an important lesson.”

If we are truly going to understand the role that trauma plays in our lives, then we all must re-shape our way of thinking about it.

Who is apt to differentiate between a “necessary life lesson” and “psychological trauma”? How do we distinguish constructive stimuli, which aided our growth by instilling lessons necessary for survival, and disruptive stimuli which had the effect of perverting our world view or stunting our personal growth?

It doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to see the potential pit-falls in this quandary. How often is a reprehensible act condoned (for example, the excessive battery of a spouse or child) under the pretense that they were simply being “properly instructed”?

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When we relegate psychological disorders to only the most extreme examples conceivable, we underplay the impact of anything less.

The reality that begins to dawn on us all, as we learn more about our own psyches, is that we all live with the after-effects of trauma in some form.

It is not hyperbole to state that you were traumatized by an event. That declaration is apt, if the event had a lasting effect on you. It may not always warrant an immediate prescription for Zoloft, but it may, upon closer evaluation, deserve a few sessions with a trained counselor.

The goal, which I’m proposing if one follows this chain of consideration, is the dissolution of old stigmas when it pertains to mental health. We’ve come a long way from harsh, dehumanizing terms like “wacko”, “straight-jacket”, and “loony”. But even if we today consider ourselves fairly enlightened, there remains a lasting prejudice, and a tendency to judge those based on how they have been labeled by established medicine. The result is a separation between They and Us, Sane and Disordered.

And what about the danger inherent in a diagnosis of Sanity? It may do more damage than we think.

Before I began to explore my own scarred psyche, I was like many citizens. I lived my life, worked my job, and paid my rent, secure in the knowledge that although there were people in the world diagnosed with afflictions such as Manic Depressive, Anxiety Disordered, Obsessive Compulsive, I was not among them.

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The assumption that I was “sane”, and thus “perfectly fine”, prevented me from asking questions about my childhood. It cushioned me in the belief that since there was no glaringly obvious scent of smoke, there was no fire to be found.

Not until events in my life triggered deep-seeded trauma did I begin to dig. And, as I discovered, even though there are no signs of fire on the ground, the roots of a tree may still be burning, deep underground, threatening to consume the entire tree from the inside out unless properly extinguished.

Seeing myself now, not as “perfectly fine”, but as “suffering from mild post-traumatic stress, with tendencies toward anxiety, depression and obsession” allows me to see myself as the vulnerable, complex, flawed being that I am.

Learning more about the traumatic events which have shaped my understanding of the world has brought a deepened understanding of myself as a person. Likewise, recognizing the lasting effects that trauma, in all its varied manifestations, have on the individual growth and development of others, has enriched my understanding of why people do what they do, and why some behaviours might at first glance seem queer to me, but to others may be completely justified.

The more I observe and experience the human species, the less I see any clear distinction between BLACK and WHITE, SANE and DISORDERED, and the easier it is to find compassion for everyone.

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Stiff, clearly defined structures only serve to separate, and alienate. The less we, as a people, are geared toward slotting folks into designated categories, the more inclusive, cooperative, and generous our society becomes.

Understanding breeds empathy.

The better we understand our own pain, the more prepared we become to understand the pain of others.

Do you have any thoughts on psychological trauma, or mental disorders?
Please leave a comment.

Don’t agree with my simplistic, layman’s diagnosis? Don’t keep it to yourself. Let me know your thoughts, whether they be favourable or critical.

Debate, and intellectual discourse are the engines which drive creativity, understanding, and progress.

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