When confronted with an outer danger, we humans have some defence systems to chose from. Well, chose may not be the right word. It may be the diametrically opposite, namely that when we do not manage life, strategies are chosen for us. These strategies are hitting us, when there seems to be no other way out. This will always leave us with a feeling of lost control, defeat and ultimately a trauma, that can steal all our happiness, our health and even life itself!
We tend to think, trauma happens to the soldiers at war. They come home with Post Traumatic Stress Disease; PTSD in short. They do. But lots of people become similar problems from very decent lives, highly undramatic and mostly even unrecognised. This typically happens at school, through mobbing, or even during a stressful period in pregnancy.
The word trauma is Greek and simply means wound. Thus trauma is used for the soldier, when his limps are torn as well as when he sees it happen to his best friend. The first is called a physical trauma, the latter a psychological trauma.
So what is a trauma? When an incident becomes too much, too soon or comes too often, we loose control and disconnect from the body. To better comprehend the three possibilities, let us have some examples.
If your income dries up, it comes to a point, where you have to cut expenses to the bone. Your depth is growing by the day. Already years in advance you have seen the family empire break down. It comes at no surprise, when the foreclosure is a fact. And yet it can be traumatic, simply because it is too much.
When you get involved in a car accident, it typically hits you like a lightning.
You may brake an arm and loose some blood. Such injuries are easily done with. The surgeons and nurses know exactly how to mend your body, do not worry!
But in the aftermath many realize, that not everything was mended at the hospital. It simply came too soon. You were not prepared!
The classmates tell the boy, he looks weird with his red hair. It is harmless, is it not? Who cares anyway! And yet, as time passes, these daily negative messages add up. During holidays, the boy cheers up, because he gets a break from the bullying. Parents and teachers talk about it, the other parents are involved, and still it happens again and again, tiny droplets leading the unhappy boy to eventually commit suicide. It simply happened too often!
Yet, this definition is not perfect. Because something can fit one of the three above, and still not create trauma. Because without a significant impact on ones life, no trauma is created. What about:
- Eating too much ice cream?
- Sticking the finger too soon with a needle?
- A fly sitting too often on your nose?
A psychological trauma does not imply any physical injury. Maybe nothing actually happened to you, but to somebody else, and yet the impact was too much, too soon or too often.
Because there are no physical injuries, a psychological trauma is less likely to be diagnosed and many people live and die with it, unnoticed.
If it gets diagnosed though, the common approach is to think, it was the feeling, that was too much, came too soon or occurred too often. Therefore people usually are treated by psychologists or psychiatrists. Sadly the results are depriving. Actually the treatment not so seldom creates new traumas, which may happen in different ways.
The typical psychologist or psychiatrist approach is to deal with the experience, which happened prior to the creation of the trauma. The traumatized person may tell about, what he remembers from the incident or incidents. He may recall the related thoughts and feelings.
This is what the therapist has to work with. The accessible thoughts and feelings. And while talking with a caring person about what happened may bring relief, stirring up these thoughts and feelings may actually create new traumas, just like the one occurring at the mere sight of a friend being killed. Simply because it still is and was too much until this very day!
Another thing is what happens, when you visit the therapist over and over again, and you feel no progress. The therapist is the one in charge, he has authority over your trauma so to speak, and yet nothing really happens. This may nourish an emerging suspicion, that you are trapped in a dead end with no rescue in sight. And maybe even worse: That something is really wrong with you, you are incurable or even doomed!
A basic problem for this approach is, that the therapist is heavily dependent on, what the traumatized person is able to recall. Not to speak about the ability to verbalize it. What if the person does not speak? Or if he speaks a foreign language? Then the therapist has no or little access to the involved thoughts and feelings.
Some approaches utilize for instance hypnosis in order to – again – get access to thoughts and feelings, thus bridging eventual loss of memory.
Trauma without knowing
In order to understand the so called psychological trauma better, let us look into an example.
A young bored man one day came along a car dealership. Outside the shop a sparkling new car was parked. The car was unlocked and the ignition key sat in the keyhole!
This was simply too tempting for the lad. He jumped in, started the car and off it went. He soon picked up his best friend, Ronny, for a ride. This was a most welcome invitation! Ronny was exited and grasped an obsolete sawn shotgun, just in case you know, and jumped in to the car.
However, the merry lads soon enough got things to worry about. Already after minutes in the car, they found them selves the targets of a pursuit. The new car was bought and payed by a taxi owner, and now alle taxies of the town buzzed like angry whasps around the thieves.
This was the beginning of hours of an intense race through the town and then small places in the countryside, until the fine new car was not so very fine any more, and the two car thieves were forced to leave the wreck behind and proceed on food. Now the events took a new turn. The police opened fire and hit Ronny´s friend in his leg. He was grounded. At this point at least he understood, the this was not a video game, but a real live event, and he convinced Ronny to stop and give himself over.
Luckily Ronny got the point, although he did not like, how the story turned out. Reluctantly he sat down on his knees though, dropped the shotgun and lifted the arms above his head.
The car thieves were pacified. They were surrounded by a team of heavy armed special police forces. Now an officer approached the sitting Ronny. Step by step he closed in. All of a sudden the weapon delivered a shut. The bullet hit Ronny right through his right temple, passed through his head and out the other side. The young lad was thrown to the ground, unconscious.1 The picture below is a collage made to present, what happened that crucial moment.
After endless hours under the knife of the surgeon luckily the next day Ronny woke up. Everybody wanted to hear his story. He gladly told about the race and how he and his friend had lured the police again and again.
But to their great disappointment, he had nothing to tell about the most important and dramatic part: The shut. He had to be told, that the police officer had shut at him, and that a bullet had passed through his head, leaving him almost intact, except for a damaged eye nerve and a big hole in the temple.
This bullet could have been the last experience in Ronny´s life, and yet he had neither conscious knowledge of, what had happened, nor did he feel anything about it. First after he was told, what had happened, feelings started to rise in him. And what did he come to feel? Maybe one of the most prominent feelings was hatred. Hatred towards the police officer, who had fired the shut towards him at close range, although he had surrendered.
Hate and revenge are not the typical feelings associated with trauma. That would rather be feelings like: Everything is lost, no way out, the final defeat. Hate and revenge applies to somebody fighting, not the defeated!
And yet Ronny´s body was traumatized. Heavily. Because when the bullet penetrated his head, although the person Ronny had no idea of what happened, at some level of his being, this knowledge was very present and real and it was reacted upon.
Immediately a signal was sent through the nervous system – through an old strain of the 10. cranial nerve, the Vagus Nerve, resulting in a cascade of processes in the body in order to make Ronny´s body survive in the best possible way. Blood supply to the head was shut down, which of course disabled his consciousness. Because the incident was too big for his consciousness, the sense of pain was simultaneously shut of. The lethal shut left his person with no psychological trauma in an ordinary sense of the word.
Hence, already by calling a trauma with no visible wounds psychological is dangerously misleading. As we shall see, any and all traumas – with and without bloodshed or broken legs – is physical, and the mechanisms of the trauma in beyond feelings. A traumatic event may or may not create feelings and memories; this however has little effect on the trauma itself.