What Are Different Types of Trauma?
Usually when we think of trauma, we think of awful things that happen to people. Abuse, violence, poverty, addiction, terror etc. But can we experience trauma when terrible things do not happen to us? Could your difficult feelings be a result of trauma that you do not recognise?
I recently participated in a Facebook comment exchange when I shared an information picture titled Coronavirus Trauma Dynamics that I received in a newsletter from Carolyn Spring. A well-respected therapist training provider. The information sparked a viewer to comment that it does not mention the most important thing of all, which he believes is to feel your emotions. He continued to define trauma as “what happens when our emotions aren’t allowed” – with the words “what happens to us isn’t the trauma”. I felt motivation to write about it after reading the comment.
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What is Trauma?
There are so many types of trauma, but is it simply, what happens to us when our emotions aren’t allowed? The wonderful Gabor Maté describes trauma as “not what happens to you, it’s what happens inside of you as a result of what happened to you.” Bessel Van Der Kolk, author of one of my most cherished books – The Body Keeps the Score – defines trauma as “an experience that basically leaves people stuck in a state of helplessness and terror. Trauma starts with the feeling of “Oh my god, my life is over.” Mind and brain become overwhelmed, resulting in a change over how you perceive danger, and what you consider relevant and irrelevant to your survival.”
What is Childhood Trauma?
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network say that early childhood trauma generally refers to the experiences that happen to children aged 0-6. Trauma can be the result of intentional violence, a natural disaster, accidents, or war. However, young children may also experience traumatic stress in response to painful medical procedures or the sudden loss of a parent/carer.
I listened to Dr. Diane Poole Heller in interview with Gabor Maté. Heller spoke clearly about our expectation of trauma. Maté mentions ‘those that know they were traumatised and those that were traumatised but do not know it’. He continues to say “usually when we think of trauma, we think of the terrible things that happen to people” citing abuse, divorce, poverty, racism, addiction, stress, violence etc as examples. He asks Heller whether it is possible, “for us to be hurt, not because these terrible things happened but because attachment needs were not met”. Heller explains that through her research into multiple types of trauma she found that a broken connection is the common thread.
“Regardless of the initiating event which sometimes contextually is important. It takes us to a deep place of losing contact with ourselves … losing contact with other people. We lose the sense of whether there is any empathetic other, any person we can trust. It’s a devastation gift that keeps on giving. The losses of being able to be present in your life. If you just look at … our own ability to be present and show up that is the challenge. Regardless of which traumatic event took you to the disconnection.”
She views connection to oneself and connection to others as one of the most healing agents.
Maté asks Heller to speak about trauma from “attachment relationships that aren’t overtly terrible but nevertheless wounding”. Because he believes some people experience trauma despite nothing terrible being done to them. “When those needs are not met in the attachment relationship those children are hurt even though nobody did anything terrible to them.” In agreement Heller confirms the basic needs of a child as;
- Naturally present parents.
- Parents attuned to the child and can align with the child’s inner state.
- Skin to skin contact at birth and beyond as much as possible.
- A natural knowing to be protective.
- A natural knowing to respond to needs.
- Parents that know how to support autonomy and age developmental appropriateness.
- Initiating repair when there has been a misattunement.
Heller does agree that her research shows when these needs are not met traumatisation might occur due to the disconnection. Neglect is widely recognised as traumatising. Sadly – because it is so often not the intention of parents – when there is not fulfilment of the above, there is neglection of needs.
If feels important for me to note that most parents are well intentioned, but systems do not enable them to meet the needs of their babies easily regardless of how much they love and adore the child. Whether this be through damaging advice, situations out of their control or systemic problems such as minimal maternity leave.
It is also important to me to highlight the final point – initiating repair when there has been a misattunement. The basic needs of a child according to Heller are not for a perfect parent but for a parent that recognises when they have ‘acted out’ and initiates repair.
Using the three examples, I refer to the original comment that motivated me to write this blog post, “what happens to us isn’t the trauma”. I think this makes the point that the event (if there even is one) is not the trauma. A child raised without its basic needs met by an attachment figure may experience trauma according to Heller. The child might even grow into an adult that does not reflect negatively on childhood. In fact, some people express confusion because they remember a great childhood. Babies and small children require certain connection, without this there is interference in healthy brain development. The result of this is insecure attachment, disconnection and therefore possible trauma.
What is Emotional Trauma?
“Trauma is what happens when our emotions are not allowed”. I believe this refers to trauma as the feeling we experience when we do not permit ourselves to express emotional trauma. The OP believes we must learn that it is ok to feel unsafe, powerless and grieve. That experiencing these feelings fully will heal. When we shut down the feelings, we continue to traumatise our own selves. As per the definition of emotional trauma, any situation that creates feelings of overwhelm and isolation can result in trauma, even without physical actions. It is not the circumstance that determines whether an event is traumatic but your subjective emotional experience.
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If you resonate with this blog post you might like to read my blog – Do you have to be a product of your environment? – I don’t think so. (juliethollingsworth.com)
How The Body Keeps The Score: An Interview with Dr. Bessel van der Kolk » Brain World (brainworldmagazine.com)
Dr Gabor Maté on Childhood Trauma, The Real Cause of Anxiety and Our ‘Insane’ Culture – HumanWindow
Van der Kolk, B. and Pratt, S., 2015. The body keeps the score. [United States]: IDreamBooks Inc.
Early Childhood Trauma | The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (nctsn.org)