“When I see people around, I don’t see individuals..I see trauma” — Dr. Gabor Mate in the documentary ‘The Wisdom of Trauma’
Trauma, defined as an affliction of our psychology as a result of debilitating circumstances such as war, childhood abuse, natural disasters, etc., has been found to be at the center of numerous mental health issues individuals face as adults.
A recent research study found that adults who have been abused as children are found to be at more risk, in some cases twice as likely, of stress-related diseases such as asthma, auto-immune, cardiac arrests, etc., and more prone to addictive behaviors than those who were not abused.
But what really happens when an individual goes through trauma? Why does a traumatic incident leave such a huge scar in the psyche of individuals?
As Dr.Gabor Mate says, trauma is what happens inside us as a result of what happens to us. Fight or Flight is the immediate response that kicks in in our body when we perceive a high level of threats in our environment. Our hormone systems then produce enough cortisol for us to take an action. But when we are in a situation where we can neither fight nor run away but have to endure a humongous amount of pain for a longer period of time, our psyche splits into one or more fragments.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk talks in detail about this in his book “The body keeps the score”. Children who have been abused, for example, go through such a humongous pain — both of psychological and physiological nature, but they can’t run away from their predators because they are also their care providers. This causes their inner self to split into multiple parts, and they start floating in the psychological universe having a voice and personality of their own. A similar impact has been found in those stuck in war situations, accidents, natural disasters, etc. While the physiological wounds heal with adequate care, the psychological wounds don’t. Thiruvalluvar, a Tamil poet, and philosopher from the 5th Century BC gives a fitting metaphor of what trauma looks and feels like in this two-liner -
தீயினாற் சுட்டபுண் உள்ளாறும் ஆறாதே
நாவினாற் சுட்ட வடு.
It essentially means that a physical wound heals, but a psychological wound especially those caused by hurtful words becomes a scar that hides the unhealed wound within. What happens when you have an unhealed wound inside you all the time but you have forgotten all about it? It awakens every time you get into a situation that threatens you and every time it awakens, you relive the pain you originally had. Now imagine a war veteran going through the pain of his platoon getting killed every time she has a flashback. Or an adult feeling the pain of helplessness of a sexually abused child every time they see or hear something that reminds them of the situation?
What trauma essentially does to people is stunt them emotionally when it comes to certain life situations — because the wound is unhealed and does not allow for organic growth. It entraps the pain that was originally caused and thereby stops the individual to feel whole about themselves.
Trauma affects individuals in more ways than one. What we see as social problems today be it smoking, drinking, drug addiction, obesity, anger problems, emotional outbursts, etc. — have been found to be a solution, a coping mechanism, for people to temporarily find relief from their traumatized selves.
“We now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive. These changes explain why traumatized individuals become hypervigilant to threats at the expense of spontaneously engaging in their day-to-day lives.”— Dr.Bessel van den Kolk
What's worse is that a major percentage of adults who have been traumatized, don’t even know that they are suffering from the consequences of being traumatized. What they experience every day — the brokenness, the feeling of trying to avoid an unheard or unseen pain, the impulsive feeling to run away from difficult situations, the need to keep repeating behaviors that we know are not healthy for us, the constant feeling of threat, etc, they experience it as their reality. We start believing that this is how living is for everyone. We keep limping around with a broken psyche and acting like it is as sturdy as it's supposed to be and making decisions from the place of brokenness.