What Trauma Is & What It Isn't


By Chay Tanchanco, PPS, AMFT


Trauma is a word being thrown around a lot more in today’s newsfeeds, which means there are also many misunderstandings. So, it’s our job as therapists to help clarify things… no better time to start than the present!


What is Trauma?

Contrary to what many people believe, trauma is not just something “bad” that happens to you.


Trauma is a combination of an overwhelming event or series of events that also fundamentally disrupts your self-image or your beliefs about others or the world. In other words, trauma includes your reaction just as much as what has happened.


According to Dr. Bruce Perry, pioneer of the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT), trauma overwhelms the system so much that it’s as if your compass is twisted toward a different “North”.


“In a very real sense, trauma throws the organism ‘off balance’, and creates a persisting set of compensatory responses which create a new, but less functionally flexible state of equilibrium. This new, trauma-induced homeostasis is more energy consuming and maladaptive than the previous state. By inducing this “expensive” homeostasis and compromising full functional capability, trauma robs the organism. It has survived the traumatic experience, but at a cost.”

Quote: Stress, Trauma, and Post-Traumatic Stress in Children


In other words, trauma is created when:

  1. Your body and mind encounter something overwhelming.

  2. In order to survive, you change your beliefs.

  3. You continue on, letting those beliefs guide your actions, even in situations when they don’t apply.

The problem with living with unprocessed trauma is the same as deciding you’re going to wear a coat of armor, then it gets stuck and you just go about your life clanging and clunking around with it. Sometimes you convince yourself that you need it, sometimes you curse it. Sometimes you tell yourself that the armor IS you, and you don’t know who you’d even be without it.


But you never think that you can just... take it off.


I believe everyone has either experienced or inherited some form of trauma. There are all different kinds, all differing timing. One thing that is incredibly traumatic to one person can be easily dismissed by another. For example, not everyone who goes through a natural catastrophe such as an earthquake, flood, or a fire develops lasting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but depending on their beliefs and their method of survival, some do and some don’t.


And just the same, one thing that helps, that begins to crack the armor you’ve been wearing for so long - may be completely ineffective to another person.


So we all have trauma, and we all have had some part in how we were affected. And we all need different kinds of help.

Now what?


Imagine that you’ve been telling yourself your whole life that you can’t do math.

No matter how hard you try, no matter what book you read, no matter what gadgets you have - you can’t do math, and you never will. No tutor will convince you otherwise. And you’ve created your life adjusted around not doing math, so why change now?


Trauma is very similar, except for its consequences. Many of us trudge along, becoming older and more irritated with small things that become larger later on. But for some of us, it can be the difference between a life worth living and an empty existence, and even not wanting to live at all.


With new data and new methods, the right person (or team of people) can re-frame your way of thinking (and feeling) entirely. You can find someone who both validates your experience of trauma and helps you find ways to live your life more freely, more flexibly, and more genuine to your true self.


The good news is, since each one of us has experienced trauma, each one of us also has the power to help others to move through it. Mental health professionals, of all people, understand that and hope to bring that feeling of validation to others. With the right relationships with others and ourselves, we all can find a path toward a life beyond our trauma.

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