For most of my life, I didn’t view my trauma as Trauma. Yes, I was diagnosed with PTSD; yes, I dissociated; yes, I struggled with nervous system dysregulation… but I minimized my trauma.
It was just one thing that happened to me on one day when I was a child. It wasn’t ongoing. There are people who experience much worse than me.
When I minimized the trauma, I minimized the effects.
Everyone dissociates once in awhile, right? It’s not uncommon to view yourself outside of yourself when you look back on memories, right? Everyone has episodes of depression during April, right? We all are just waiting for the next big tragedy, right? None of that really MEANS anything.
That’s what I believed.
Add to that thought pattern all the ways we talk about trauma: we use phrases like big T, little t… say things like, “real trauma is only seen in war veterans…” or “trauma is just part of life.”
I minimized my trauma, and I minimized the effects, over and over again.
In high school I wrote an essay about the unique scents of each season and the memories attached (it actually became a finalist in a state writing competition, you know I have to throw that in there). In this essay, I described how the scents of spring felt sad to me because they reminded me of my grandpa’s traumatic death on my front lawn. Even when I wrote the words at the age of 17, I didn’t understand the effects of that trauma the way I do now.
Now I understand that because of that trauma, I dissociated often. I stared off into space randomly, sometimes in the middle of engaging conversations. In the early aftermath of the trauma, I was frequently sick with stomachaches and infections, namely tonsillitis and bronchitis. When an emergency situation arose, I froze, and watched everything that happened outside of my body until I felt safe to return to it.
None of this was intentional, and that is important to understand when we are talking about trauma. These responses were the ways that my brain protected me from a repeat injury. These were signals from my brain to my body, so that my body could go on alert and keep me safe in the way it was designed to.
We all, at some point in our lives, will experience trauma. It may not impact your brain and body the way it impacted me. But it will happen, and it will impact you, if it hasn’t already.
Take the ACE study, for example. The Adverse Childhood Experiences study showed that the adverse events that happen in your childhood can predispose you to negative health outcomes later in life. In 2019, the CDC found that at least five of the top ten leading causes of death, including respiratory and heart disease, cancer and suicide, are associated with ACEs. In fact, lifetime priming of the amygdala (the emotional response and reaction portion of the brain) happens in the first 7 years of life and even informs baseline metabolism.
The research is clear: early life stress = later life physical and/or mental dysfunction.
But the research doesn’t stop there. Thanks to the science of neuroplasticity and what we know about polyvagal theory and the autonomic nervous system, we know that we can learn to regulate our response to the trauma triggers.
I don’t have to stay in freeze mode (also known as dorsal vagal shutdown). By learning to support my parasympathetic nervous system, I have learned to get out of fight, flight, or freeze. By engaging my body through breath and movement like yoga, by singing worship songs to activate vagal tone, by utilizing therapeutic tools like tapping, by spending time in nature and eating good whole food that doesn’t stress my body out, I am learning to accept my body as is. And as I learn to accept my body, I learn to accept the trauma triggers associated. I accept that the signals my body sends me are signals of protection, even when they’re unpleasant.
One of the biggest lies trauma tells us is that your body isn’t safe – ever. Not just for the one moment in time when you experienced a traumatic event…but for the rest of your life. Your body doesn’t know the difference between a real threat or a perceived (remembered) one.
Our bodies have to find new ways to feel safe to counter the trauma response.
I accept that my trauma contributed to the person I am, but I don’t have to stay frozen and fearful. I can move forward, one healing step at a time. I know that future trauma will likely occur. I also know that I have more tools to support my response. I’m forever grateful for the great minds paving the way, de-stigmatizing trauma for all, and sharing how to retrain our bodies and brains to be released from the long-term effects of trauma.
Trauma changes the brain and body, but remember – so does healing.