Two individuals are robbed at gunpoint. One experiences overwhelming helplessness and has a hard month. But by the end of that time, he has pretty much resolved and integrated the incident into his life. The other person experiences intense rage. Years later, she is still struggling with the negative, life-changing aftermath of the trauma.
As seen in the above example, not everyone reacts to trauma in the same way. Just as pain thresholds differ, so do trauma thresholds. But as William Shakespeare wrote in his play Othello, “What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”
Having studied trauma intensively over the past couple of decades, researchers now know that a traumatic event’s impact depends on the perception of it. Perception is influenced by a number of factors including age, physical characteristics, level of support, etc. Thus, emotional trauma can result from a single extreme and deeply felt experience or from a series of low-intensity events. Even everyday happenings — falls, difficult births, betrayals, medical/dental procedures — can cause the same lingering traumatic effects as extreme or violent events, such as physical abuse, combat or serious accidents.
Fortunately, even traumatic effects that linger for years can be resolved, and the result can be a new present-day reality that includes, but is not dominated by, a traumatic past.
“The same immense energies that create the symptoms of trauma, when properly engaged and mobilized, can transform the trauma and propel us into new heights of healing, mastery and even wisdom,” writes Peter Levine, author of Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma.
The Natural Trauma Response
Levine and others contend that emotional trauma goes unhealed when the natural trauma response is interrupted and feelings unleashed by the event remain unresolved. Because of this, anxiety, anger, depression, guilt, hopelessness, self-blame, shame and other feelings freeze up inside of us.
That “freeze” is not just emotional, but it is physical as well. Recent research indicates that parts of the brain become altered by traumatic events. These disruptions are actually visible on brain scans.
Just what is a natural trauma response? It’s the whole continuum of emotional and physical sensations that occur with the first inclination that something is wrong or dangerous. To understand it, Levine suggests that we look at how animals respond to danger, real or perceived.
After the animal has instinctively chosen to fight, flee or freeze, and the danger has passed, the animal twitches and trembles throughout the entire body, essentially “shedding” the tension required for alertness and quick response.
Human response to danger — real or perceived — can also involve shaking, sweating, crying, laughing or shuddering. Just like the animal, such responses are natural and part of the body’s effort to return to a state of equilibrium. They are crucial to the recovery process, and they may go on for hours, days or weeks.
Too often, however, we deny this process or don’t give it its due. We say to ourselves or hear from others, Pull yourself together. Forget about it. Get up and shake it off. It’s time to get on with your life.
And when we do that, when we ignore the emotional and physical sensations that continue after a traumatizing event, we interrupt the natural cycle, short-circuiting our natural ability to heal. This sets us up for a damaging traumatic aftermath.
“The animal’s ability to rebound from threat can serve as a model for humans,” Levine writes. “It gives us a direction that may point the way to our own innate healing abilities.”
Life After Trauma
The incidence of serious negative events that typically evoke traumatic response is surprisingly pervasive in our culture today. A 20-year study released in 2005 by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that of the 17,337 middle-class participants, a startling 64% had experienced one or more of eight categories of traumatic childhood events.
The study showed a significant connection between this childhood trauma and disease, depression, drug use and/or suicide.
Perhaps that is because unresolved trauma can undermine basic human needs. Dena Rosenbloom and Mary Beth Williams, authors of Life After Trauma: A Workbook for Healing, identify these basic needs as safety, trust, a measure of control over one’s life, self-worth and intimacy.
EMDR is a highly effective way to deal with unresolved trauma, whether that single extreme incident or a series of low intensity events. By processing upsetting experiences, those memories lose their power. When trauma is fully resolved, people find that the basic needs of safety, trust and control over one’s life are restored. Many people come away renewed and ready to live the rest of their life on their own terms.
Author’s content used with permission, © Claire Communications
Additional Resources for Trauma Therapy
I highly recommend a new book by Francine Shapiro, the creator of EMDR:
View the Resources page of my website for additional books on this and other topics.