Eight Elemental Aspects of What We Call "Trauma"

How can we make sense of relentless senselessness?

Posted Aug 16, 2019

"You are interested, I know, in the prevention of war, not in our theories, and I keep this fact in mind. Yet I would like to dwell a little longer on this destructive instinct which is seldom given the attention that its importance warrants. With the least of speculative efforts we are led to conclude that this instinct functions in every living being, striving to work its ruin and reduce life to its primal state of inert matter. Indeed, it might well be called the 'death instinct'; whereas the erotic instincts vouch for the struggle to live on."

—Sigmund Freud, in response to Albert Einstein's question "Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?"

Trauma is a complex issue. We know it all too well in its basic simplicity, an evolutionary fixture of organic life amplified by consciousness and culture. In other ways, we know nothing about trauma. It is eternally surprising even as it is utterly predictable. Trauma is heartbreaking.

Given how the world is today, the persistence of trauma in humanity's operating system is a more pressing issue than ever. If we don't deal with trauma, what's happening will keep happening, until it comes to its own conclusion. 

1. Trauma is hard to pin down. 

Working with difficult experiences sometimes means going over them again and again in different ways, until something new emerges, as much as it also means taking breaks from that, perhaps for long periods of time. Sometimes things suddenly change for the better, either unexpectedly or as the result of choices. The word "trauma" doesn't suffice on its own, because it means so many different things to different people under various circumstances, but it does mean something we can all recognize.

People don't agree on trauma. It has a subjective component. One person's trauma may be no biggie to another person, leading to rupture. We tend to compare our traumatic experiences with one another's. We may even compete.

We can find commonality and community in trauma, and we can find division and discord. Trauma often disrupts our sense of body and reality.

"[You know] that fear and the drop in your stomach? My diaphragm seizes up. Then I have a hard time breathing, and my whole body goes into a spasm. And I begin to cry. That's what it feels like for trauma victims every day, and it's... miserable... I always say that trauma has a brain. And it works its way into everything that you do."

—Lady Gaga

2. Trauma changes storytelling. 

We live entirely within a world of timeless frenzy, flashes of imagery going by without a coherent framework. Trauma keeps us from telling our stories clearly to ourselves—no envied, coherent narrative. Different contexts get mixed up. Present seems like past, people seem like other people. It feels like it is happening over and over. Freud saw this as a compulsion to repeat, yet what possibly unconscious motivation could make one wish to be re-traumatized? Is it more like a broken circuit? Or is that too reductive?

3. Trauma distorts emotional reality, making feelings and memories very daunting. 

Trauma makes it hard to deal with ordinary emotions. We don't have the brain circuitry built up to handle the intense affect and unprocessed meaning of trauma. Learning from experience means we have to endure whatever feelings go along with the significance. We want wisdom, but there is no justification for suffering.

4. Trauma is common. 

Trauma happens to most everyone. With unresolved trauma, new experiences can seem dangerous, more than they are, and we can shy away from them or dive in blindly from time to time. This means we are flying on autopilot, rather than keeping our wits about us, while feeling attuned to our bodies and emotions.

Trauma is a potent contagion. We fear what we cannot understand, and we cannot understand what we can't imagine happening to us or people close to us. Digital reality spreads trauma. Where is the vaccination? 

5. We are beginning to better understand how the brain responds to adversity. 

Trauma shifts brain network activity. Resting-state or default mode networks re-tune so that the brain at rest drifts toward unpleasantries. The negative cognitive bias we inherit, making threat detection a primary task, is amplified by unresolved trauma. The salience networks of the brain which alter what we look for inside and outside are prejudiced and compromised. Trauma draws processing power away from working memory, making it harder for us to think clearly, to juggle information, and contributes to difficulty soothing.

Trauma is like not knowing how to balance while riding a bicycle. The brain keeps falling over to one side or the other, activation or deactivation. Dynamic balance among parts is lost, leading to parts not being in communication. Self-states are separated by dissociation, by an absence of connection, while others are over-connected, stuck together. Executive control networks are off-kilter. Stress biology makes big hubs in the executive control network less effective. 

6. Trauma can masquerade as personality. 

Borderline personality disorder, which shares some key features with complex trauma, is more frequent with complex trauma and more severe with more severe trauma. Identification with trauma can be protective, but also make it hard to let go and move forward. Trauma can mimic narcissism, dependency, schizoid states, and so on, wearing many guises. Identification with trauma can also yield great purpose, in the presence of the right factors.

When people fear losing identity, change is harder. Not because we actually would lose ourselves, but because that is what we may fear... itself a symptom of trauma.

7. Trauma doesn't necessarily last forever, but it can feel that way. 

Doing the work is important, being active. Self-compassion, soothing and rest are equally necessary, even though they are often avoided, may seem wasteful or vulnerable. Learning to breathe, to sooth, to de-escalate, to go from red alert to orange, and so on. Being able to surrender in some ways, while not giving up. Trauma can have a sense of being infinite, immortal even, by virtue of being timeless. Illusory and so real. People tend to be resilient, for better for worse.

8. Wait for it. 

Keats's concept of "Negative Capability" is a powerful if ineluctable tool. As Keats wrote, arguing against reductive rationality:

“It struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” 

Except when trauma interferes with development, the brain's plasticity, ability to heal itself, tendency to return to homeostasis, and the depth of the mind with experience and new relationships often allow us to contain the trauma with ourselves, to occupy our bodies well, and locate a world we can live in with satisfaction and a good sense of self. Sometimes looking for the answers gets in the way of finding out the truth.

In a basic sense, some things just take a while to figure out. Some problems take a while to solve, like a 20-page math proof. Trying to get closure too fast can seriously delay properly wrapping things up. Telling apart what just takes time from what could get done sooner—it's important not to mix them up.

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