I want to spend this blog post addressing and unpacking the concept of trauma. We will discuss in this post what it is, how it affects us through soft-spots, and how to deal with it. It is important to discuss this because it leads to many of the fights and problems which we face later in life. It is only through fixing it correctly which we can take the blankets off our faces and breathe again. See again. And get back to normal.
Introduction: How Heavy is a Glass of Water?
I want you to imagine this. You are holding a glass of water out in front of you. Arm’s length away. Your arm is fully stretched out. How heavy is it?
Does it matter how much water is in the glass? Yes and no. Yes, in a sense that if we were a child it might be burdensome to hold a full cup out like this. But usually not. As adults, we can lift much more than just a glass of water right?
Yes and no.
This is what so many of us get wrong.
We can hold the glass for a moment. Two moments. 30-seconds into it, it starts to get quite challenging. Then after a minute, we feel tense. After 5-minutes, your arm might feel like it’s on fire. And after a day? Now I’m curious to see what the Guinness World Record for holding a cup is.
The answer to this question is that it depends on how long we hold it. A cup is as heavy as the length of time you hold it out in front of you.
And our emotions are as heavy as the length of time we hold them in.Our emotions are as heavy as the length of time we hold them in. Just like a glass of water is as heavy as the length of time we hold it. get the word out
What is Trauma? (and why do we dream?)
In this blog post, I take the perspective of trauma discussed by Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score and Mattew Walker in Why We Sleep. They are frequently both mentioned as well on our podcast. Both describe the notion of trauma as an event being so significant that our brains cannot codify them correctly into our memories.
Think about a time when you were younger, say a child. Now imagine that something upset you such as wanting to play with a toy that your friend had but they wouldn’t share. You wanted to play with the red car! You wanted a turn with the doll with a purple dress! Or maybe you are reading from a later generation, and wanted a turn to play on the tablet! (Or something we can all relate to – wanting another cookie but our parents saying we had enough and it’s the time now to go to bed).
At the time, as our parents can attest, these events were very difficult for us. There was a lot of crying involved and maybe some screaming and flailing our arms too. We were all over the place. At the time, it felt awful!
Now thinking back to it now, when you think of those same years and memories with our parents, how does it feel? Do you still feel the same intense pain, hurt and maybe anger associated with not being able to have a turn with the toy as we felt in the past?
For many of us, the answer is no. We remember those moments, yes, but the same pain does not come back for us when we recall them. They existed, yes, but they are not painful. They are just memories, just thoughts. We might feel a bit of the sensation we once felt, but it is surely not so significant.
This would be an example of the integration of an experience into long-term memory. It happens while we sleep, most notably in rapid eye movement or REM sleep. This sleep cycle gets its name due to the large amount of back and forth eye movements that generally occur in this cycle. This cycle is also largely the product of why we dream.
Many sleep scientists including Mattew Walker propose the idea that dreams are the byproduct of memory reconciliation. You see, our short term memories are stored in one part of the brain (mainly the hippocampus) and long-term memories are located elsewhere (mainly the anterior cingulate cortex). To get from one to the other, and to be correctly stored in its new location, a number of processes have to occur which scientists are still studying today.
A major perceived event of this transition, though, is dissociation. The emotions that we once felt in the experience are “scrubbed.” They are still there, but not in such a significant stance. Or they may not be there altogether. While it can be nice to keep the same intense feelings we once felt during moments of extreme joy, it can be quite harmful to re-experience negatives of extreme sadness.
Our body dampens the significance of emotions from memory so that we can continue to function. Imagine if we could never “get over” all that crying we had as children over wanting another cookie! That would surely burden us down today. We would have so much sadness that is always with us, that we just wouldn’t be able to “let go”! Sometimes we just need that sad feeling to go away and be done with that. But sometimes it doesn’t leave so easily.
Trauma as a Brain Malfunction
Have you ever tried to do something on the computer and it just couldn’t go through? You really wanted to continue to the next page, but you kept getting a “404 error” on the page? (Sorry if you’ve ever gotten it on ours! That would be the result of a broken link, please do let us know if you find one).
What about trying to do something on an app, but your order could just not go through! The picture wouldn’t load! The site wouldn’t log us in! The game wouldn’t save!
In essence, all of these are examples of the computer getting stuck. It is trying to do something, but just can’t. It just can’t keep going. There is an error in the code somewhere, and it needs to finish the function of that code to get to the next one, but no matter what it does it just can’t continue to the next line.
This is largely what occurs regarding the way trauma is stored (and isn’t stored) in the brain. The experience of trauma is a memory that is not able to be reconciled into long-term memory. It can’t be moved properly from the hippocampus to the cingulate cortex. Even within the hippocampus, there seem to be errors in the way it is being stored.
The problem is that the pain experienced by it is so significant, so severe in a sense, or so surprising that our brains do not know how to move on to the next line of code. They get stuck. There is a malfunction. And if left unaddressed, this malfunction could take us all down with it.
Have you ever had a dish left on the counter for a while (maybe by an old college roommate who wouldn’t stop doing it no matter how long you complained) that could no longer be cleaned? It was so dirty, and the grease or whatever on it was there for so long, that soap and water just couldn’t get it out anymore? You had to either get a new pot, or go to the store to get some steel wool or a more powerful cleaning tool to get it out?
What if your sink once got so drained, that your regular cleaning tools were insufficient to clean it and you had to get something stronger instead? Or a shower head?
This is similar to what occurs in the brain when trauma occurs. The emotion attached to the experience is so intense, or so different or extreme, or so inconsistent with the scale of emotions that were being experienced at that time, that the regular tools to “scrub” it did not work. It just couldn’t get clean.
Now we know how uncomfortable it could be to have a dirty and stinky pot lying around for a while, but could you imagine a dirty and stinky emotion? The pain that we once experienced cannot be scrubbed. It stays. It’s still there. It doesn’t go away. It can’t be processed. It can’t be put away. It’s there. And wow, it’s intense.
Trauma is an experience so intense that the feelings associated with it cannot be scrubbed away. This means that every time that feeling or memory is recalled, or something similar to it reminds us of it, we go back into the same state that were in when it first occurred.
Minds race. Hearts beat heavy. Chests feel tense. Fists clench. Tears come rolling down. It may get hard to breathe. We may be unable to move. We may be unable to stop moving. We may be filled with an overwhelming desire to scream, cry, run, hide, or be silent. All like the first experience – relived again. The punishment was so intense the first time that we have to experience it again.
How We Deal With Trauma
A major problem with this reaction is that it can leave us feeling so overwhelmed that we strive to never feel it again. This can be helpful if we seek the right tools for addressing it, but can leave many of us stuck if we use other methods.
Disengagement / Numbing
One of the most common methods to deal with trauma is to avoid engaging with anything that caused the trauma in the first place. Did the experience leave you feeling uncomfortable alone? Some people will then go out of their way to never be alone, engaging in activities like not studying for their exams because they would rather go out with their friends, even though they know inside that they need to study but just don’t want to be alone doing it. Others might put so much pressure on their partners to never leave them to be alone, that they end up leaving them from the pressure.
Another example of numbing is through compulsive phone use. If it is too much for us to feel any anxiety altogether, we may compulsively check our cell phones at the slightest hint of something feeling wrong. The problem is often the solution to something else.
This can lead us to never truly understand our emotions, and therefore not engage in activities that could help to address them before they get larger. For example, does one feel anxious that they are not exercising enough? Instead of trying to feel this emotion and try to unpack why they could be feeling it, they try to ignore it altogether. Then the source of that anxiety is never resolved.
Alternatively, one can seek compulsive exercise as a way to numb other feelings that come from their bodies. Exercise though is a better alternative than numbing through alcohol or fighting, for it has many health benefits and releases the mood-boosting neurotransmitters.
When we choose not to feel at all because feeling is too painful for us, or too intense, we can prevent ourselves from engaging in so many of the pleasures in life. So much living goes around us when we are off our phones and in the moment. And so often, we need to feel. It is a fundamental truth of all humans – we need to feel something to feel alive.
When the pain is so hard that we stop feeling altogether, we may create negative events around us like fights and conflict just to have at least something to connect to.
More-so, choosing to avoid particular events can be intensely challenging for our partners. For example, every time they want to talk about how they feel, you tell them “I can’t talk about this. It’s too much for me.” You feel your heart race and don’t know what to do. These “soft-spots” discussed by Sue Johnson in Hold Me Tight are things we all share.
Soft-spots are things that bring us from 0 to 100 very quickly and the result of unresolved traumas. We will discuss them in more detail in a later post. The more we deal with them now, the easier it is for our partners later.
Dismissal of Ideas
Another issue that occurs in the way people experience trauma is that they fundamentally change the way that they perceive themselves. If treated badly, or something very bad happened to them, they may think that they deserved it. This may lead to them feeling like they are fundamentally flawed or that they are meant to be treated badly. This is especially significant in instances when the person on the receiving end of the negative event couldn’t fight back. This could look like the dynamic of an adult and young child, for example, the child not being able to fight back.
As we see the world through stories and make sense of our surroundings through the stories we tell ourselves, we need a story to consolidate this event. So, many of us unfortunately resort to the intense belief that we deserved it. And this is a gateway belief for many further negative encounters. For now that one thinks they are fundamentally less valuable than others or deserve less than them, it is easy to dismiss all their dreams. All their needs, wants and desires. For why should they be considered if the person is not worthy of basic decency?
This is a very negative and harmful mindset to adopt. It can make it harder to justify engaging in self-care exercises or even seek help in the first place because one believes that they are not deserving of them. Yet one needs to understand that this is the malfunction/disorder speaking. It is not true that one is fundamentally flawed and less than others, for we are all human.
The nature of being human alone is enough to justify our value and presence in this world. As Viktor Frankl so brilliantly writes in Say Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything, ‘we are all perfectly imperfect in our own way.’ Therefore, our life has meaning. We matter. And there is something that we are perfectly suited for. For no one, and I mean truly no one, is exactly like you.
This must mean then, that there is something you are best suited for more than anyone else in the world. You, and yes – you! Viktor Frankl writes then that it is our duty to find it and utilize it. By bringing it into being, we seize the moment and preserve it forever.
From Pain to Healing
When your car breaks down, what do you do? Take it to a mechanic, right? It would be frustrating to be driving a car whose engine keeps stalling and getting stuck on the way to important meetings all because it needs an oil change, right?
So why drive the car for so long when it is short on oil? Why put yourself through all the pain associated with having a malfunctioning car when a mechanic could just fix the problem?
What about a pipe leak. If a pipe is leaking in your house, do you leave it and let it be, or do you fix it? I hope you would fix it. Because a broken pipe, if left unattended, could make your whole house collapse. Whether it be through water damage and mould that builds on the walls, degrading its structural integrity, or an explosion tempted by a gas leak, unattended pipes can be deadly.
Just like our example with the car, the longer we don’t address the problem, the worse it gets. What could have been fixed with just an oil change could have prevented an entire engine from collapsing? And that leaking gas pipe could have prevented a major explosion if it was just patched.
The same goes for that analogy with holding the glass from the beginning of this post. Holding it for a long time can cause so much pain! Better to just put it down in the first place. Yet we don’t know how to put it down, to “stop carrying the burden.” But if we just “let it go”, everything would be easier. How, you might say? The same way you would fix your car or a pipe. By seeing a professional.
When we feel intensely overwhelmed by something for a long time, we may be experiencing trauma. The good news is that there are ways of dealing with it, just as we would deal with software issues on a computer or an engine malfunction.
This is through seeing a professional that can help us make sense of our experience and understand it for what it truly is – trauma. A brain malfunction. It is not that we are fundamentally flawed or deserve to be treated badly by others, but that our brain is malfunctioning.
There are a variety of different techniques for dealing with trauma. This includes wellness training, Cognitive Behavioural Therapies (Cognitive Processing Therapy, Stress Inoculation Therapy, for example), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR – probably relating to its role in REM sleep), Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), Internal Family Systems Therapy, and even some medication.
To many, the process of finally healing trauma in a way that addresses what it really is is like taking a blanked off their face and seeing for the first time. It’s amazing.
Unaddressed trauma can change and ruin lives. It can be driving apart your relationship and affecting your children. It can also be affecting the way you treat yourself and engage with others, not to mention your mood and could be the cause of many bad feelings. It cannot just be brushed aside, because ignored thoughts almost always show themselves in the body.
Don’t keep a fire running thinking it will go out on its own. Stop it in its tracks by getting the right tools to be able to process this memory glitch effectively.
I encourage you to think about trauma as a memory which is not able to be reconciled properly. There should not be some big stigma associated with it. Just see it for what it is – a mental glitch. When we have a physical or other malfunction in our lives, we fix it right? It’s never too late to start fixing our emotional ones too.
Think of trauma as a memory which cannot be reconciled properly. There should not be some big stigma associated with it. Just see it for what it is – a mental glitch. When we have a physical or other malfunction in our lives, we fix it… spread the message
I believe that unresolved trauma is a significant burden to creating healthy relationships and strong families. Not to mention, the innate strength and potential in us all. That we are all uniquely imperfect makes us each perfect at something no one else is. What will you build with your unique talents?
Thank you for reading.
Prefer podcasts? We got you covered. See these podcast episodes for ideas similar to the discussion in this article. More are underway to discuss trauma in more detail and will be released over the next few weeks. Thank you for listening: