What is trauma?
Trauma occurs when we are exposed to a situation that creates a stress reaction in our body that we unable to cope with by integrating and releasing. Even if there is no actual threat the perception of threat and our inability to cope with that perceived threat can be traumatizing. A good example to illustrate how trauma works is to think of animals in the wild. When a lion chases a gazelle, that gazelle first goes into flight mode and takes off, running for its life. When the Lion inevitably catches it, the gazelle goes into freeze mode. This mode basically numbs the gazelle to lessen the pain of being killed. This is a natural response to trauma and one that thankfully all mammals are equipped with. The freeze mode not only numbs the pain but also serves the purpose of trying to trick the lion into thinking the gazelle is dead with the hope that he will leave it unattended and come back later to eat the carcass. After the lion leaves and the coast is clear the Gazelle will jump up and literally shake off the experience and go back to its day! The trauma is released as the gazelle shakes, it is not internalized and you won’t see the gazelle wandering around displaying signs of stress weeks later as he thinks about the experience! Animals are incredible examples of how to live in the present moment!
We as humans have this same primal system! When our fight, flight or freeze reactions are activated in a scary situation, ideally our nervous system will have the ability to regulate and integrate the feelings and body sensations that come up and then release that pent up energy often through tears or shaking. Unfortunately, what we often see happen is that our nervous system is already overwhelmed before we experience a traumatic event and so our body is much less capable of coping well with that event and we can hold that energy within our body rather than releasing it.
A good metaphor to think of is that our nervous system is like a cup. If there is space in the cup we are much more capable of handling a trauma without any persistent long term effects. When that cup is full, it begins to overflow and we exist in a state of being overwhelmed. If our cup was full or overflowing when the trauma occurred we will experience that trauma in a much more extreme way. When we hold the energy from the trauma within, it begins to affect our daily lives. The symptoms could be from very minor to debilitating and may not occur right away but could surface days, months or even years later. Things like, flashbacks, nightmares, trouble sleeping, hypervigilance, irritably, shame, feeling numb, extreme anger, depression and anxiety are just a few of the possible symptoms.
Something important to remember is that what defines trauma differs among individuals according to their subjective experiences, *not the objective facts*. People can react to the same situation in completely different ways depending on how full their cup was before the traumatic event occurred.
So how do we make space in the cup?
We do this through self care!!! The good news is it is possible to make space so that healing can happen faster and so that our day to day quality of life is improved. The more time we devote to resourcing and nurturing ourselves, the more space we create which makes dealing with the hard stuff a little bit easier. The time we put into self care is directly correlated with how resilient we are when trauma occurs. By self care, I mean anything that nurtures your soul. Things such as, connecting with nature, creating music or art, movement, meditation etc. Making space in your cup is the very first step towards healing!
Finding balance is the key!