Trauma and Choice
I just finished watching yet another video on trauma. So much trauma, and how we hold it in our bodies, our hearts and our souls. There are some brilliant practitioners (see list at the end of the post) out there that are trying to get the word out so we as a society can understand that trauma impacts us in so many ways. And we then ‘blame’ the person/people/ourselves for reacting in a way that we really have no control over. With trauma we lose the ability to ‘choose’ how we behave, interpret, interact. We want to, more than anything to do it differently. We try our hardest to think our way into doing it, feeling it differently than we do. But, in the trauma response we just can’t. It isn’t that part of our brain (the thinking part, or as I like to call the ‘grown up brain’) that is making the decision. It is the other parts-the parts that are integral to survival, that don’t THINK, but rather react, protect, shut down, run away, prepare or react to terrible things, and disengage because people weren’t there and we can’t depend on them-that are making that ‘decision.’ Because when our brains were learning who and what and how to interact, engage with, and depend on people in a way we needed, those brains and bodies and hearts and souls also had trauma. So, it generally gets in the way of our being present to what is currently happening because it was NECESSARY for our brains/bodies/minds/souls to respond and react the way they did in order to SURVIVE. SURVIVAL. Yes… For our very survival.
And if you are still here, if you are still breathing, then it worked. Those responses WORKED. You lived! And that is an amazing thing. So, our brains/bodies/minds/souls learned the best way to survive was to do these things-react, protect, shut down, run away, prepare, disengage-whenever it is reminded of something that feels/seems like something from what happened at the time that was terrible, the NON grown up brain interprets as something that will interfere with our survival. That is trauma. And it hurts us, and it hurts others and it just sucks. When I am reminded of how much pain it causes, and how we are often blaming ourselves, or our families, or the world, I am just saddened to know that we just don’t know enough yet. We don’t have enough education or understanding to realize the impact of the dysregulation of our bodies, minds and souls because of trauma.
There is so much pain, sadness, anger, fear, hate-do you see it? Can you see it everywhere? When you start to know and understand trauma, you begin to see that, to see people, maybe even to see yourself with such a different filter. Maybe a different understanding of why we do the things we do. Because we are afraid, because we feel alone, because we feel like no one cares-so we are going to do everything we can to stop that feeling, to shut it down, to numb ourselves, to isolate from others, to fight, because that is what we did to survive. We are all just trying our best to survive. And yet, all the things that would help us to survive-to reach out, to connect, to engage feel like all the things that would make it worse. “What if they reject me?” “What if I am not good enough?” “What if they hurt me?” or “What if it kills me?” That is what the trauma response looks like. Maybe it isn’t a trauma of abuse (although it could be), but rather one of not getting our attachment needs met, or our brains/bodies/souls not getting the opportunity to ‘learn’ that we can tolerate difficult/painful feelings-that we will get through it somehow. Or maybe it is that we haven’t had the experience of the ‘rupture and repair’ of relationships enough times to trust that people do make mistakes (and so do we), but we can continue the relationship and have good moments again. There are so many ways our bodies and brains were adaptive in order to survive difficult times (at a time when survival was the entire point!) that are no longer adaptive in our current situations. In trauma we don’t KNOW there is another side. We are stuck in the body/mind/soul response of how we survived that trauma-there is no CHOICE. When we are able to access and use our ‘grown up brains’-when we DO have choice, then we aren’t in that trauma response. But, in trauma, that part gets shut out. Survival will trump choice every time. So, if you are in that place in your life, or you see someone else in that place, maybe take a minute to be gentle. To pay attention to what is happening-to notice that maybe it is a trauma response, and not just someone making a ‘bad choice’ because maybe, just maybe it really isn’t a choice at all.
I have tears in my eyes as I write this, because of all the people I know, clients, friends, family, even myself that have lived with trauma responses and then beat themselves up, degraded their value, blamed themselves for not doing life differently.
I can only hope that the message will get out there, that we will start having patience and understanding and gentleness for each other. That maybe we can treat the trauma (I know there is SO MUCH research and there are more and more treatment options out there for trauma than there ever was before), and give ourselves and the people in our lives some real relief. Maybe, I hope-and I do have a lot of hope (because at least with EMDR I have seen some of this relief)-that we can move from merely surviving to a place of choice, a place of deciding what we love and what gives us joy, and that we can face the fears from our grown up brain/body and know we will come out the other side and be okay.
Please be gentle with those people in your lives (and yourself!) when you find a reaction that seems really intense. It might be the kid brain/body survival response-and that looks pretty overwhelming in a grown up body. If you can take a breath (or ten), take a step back and see if you can connect, rather than shut it down. Sometimes that connection can make all the difference.
If you have some time today, reach out to someone. Give them a hug, remind them that they matter to you. It may be that you need to remind yourself of this. You matter. Maybe take a few moments right now to connect to that tiny part of yourself that you try not to listen to because it feels or seems ‘irrational.’ Maybe it isn’t irrational, maybe it is trying to survive. Take a little time to thank that part of you for fighting for your very survival. You are here, you are breathing now because of it. And then, maybe by acknowledging that part, you will allow for the next step.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you have any thoughts or comments or feedback, I would love to hear it.
(People who speak at the professional level of trauma that is so helplful-not all inclusive!!:
Bessel Van der Kolk MD, Dan Seigel MD, Pat Ogden PhD, Allan Schore PhD, Steven Porges PhD, Peter LeVine PhD)