One of the most delicate issues to deal with in therapy or coaching is emotional and psychological trauma. Because of its painful nature, when traumatized, most of us try to avoid facing it at all costs. We believe that by not dealing with the issue we are “letting it go”. But the truth is that we are solely pushing it out of our consciousness, which requires the mobilization of a great deal of our vital energy. And the energy put to that use is lost to any other task that we could engage with and could help us live happier lives. Not only that, unaddressed trauma, although out of consciousness, continues to function as a roadblock in the road of personal fulfillment. But what exactly is trauma, what can cause it and how to deal with it?
What is trauma?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), trauma is the direct personal experience of an event that involves:
- actual or the threat of death;
- actual or the threat of serious injury;
- threat to one's physical integrity (or the physical integrity of a loved one);
- or can be a result of witnessing an event that involves any of the above experiences.
In other words, emotional or psychological trauma is any type of damage to the mind that occurs as a consequence of a severely distressing event that threatens (or is perceived as a threat to) one’s survival and sense of security, or that of a loved one’s. Traumatization will occur when one’s internal and external resources are inadequate to cope with the external threat.
Although trauma can have a wide variety of causes, the most traumatic experiences (or those with the highest potential for traumatization) share a few common aspects:
There is frequently a violation of the person's familiar ideas about the world and their human rights, putting them in a state of extreme confusion.
There is a break in a person’s sense of personal safety and security, especially when violent or abusive experiences happen in places where one is supposed to feel safe (our home, the house of a parent or family member, our workplace, etc.) or when violence comes from those who are expected to protect us (parents, family, close friends, partners, etc.). Stressful events that happen both at a place that is supposed to be safe and is promoted by a person who is not supposed to be a threat can be especially traumatic, particularly in childhood.
Unexpectedly violent situations that disrupts our day-to-day lives can also be extremely traumatic, including catastrophic natural disasters (such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions), large scale transportation accidents (plane and train crashes), and mass interpersonal violence (like war and terrorist attacks).
But traumatic experiences don’t have to be a one-time thing nor does it have to be overwhelmingly intense at once: long-term exposure to milder forms of trauma (including verbal abuse), independently of physical assault, may still generate psychological harm.
Of course, not everyone who is exposed to a traumatic event will become traumatized and, among those who does, each will manifest the trauma in different ways. But, in general, when a person is put through an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds their ability to deal with the experience traumatization occurs. Either due to lack of emotional or intellectual maturity, they usually can’t understand the feelings brought about by the experience nor can integrate the emotions involved. Unable to process the disturbing emotional and psychological content while having to cope with the immediate circumstances, the individual will eventually present serious, long-term negative consequences. Which consequences?
The consequences of trauma
Each person is affected by an event of any nature according to their own subjective experiences, their physical and psychological maturity, their context, and to their own filters of reality. In the most difficult cases, some people may develop mental disorders that create some level of impairment on their daily lives. For example, some may become extremely anxious or phobic to the point where a social or professional life is affected, if at all possible; others may develop unexplained chronic insomnia that affects their next day productivity at home or work. Others, instead, may compulsively (and unconsciously) engage in relationships and situations that allow for the repetition of the traumatic event in their daily lives over and over again, maybe in search for a different resolution to it. The common denominator though is that the repressed (or unacknowledged) emotional pain created by the trauma will find ways to “leak” into the consciousness until it is properly dealt with. And it is the effort to send it back to the unconscious and to keep our lives functional while not dealing with it that consumes the great deal of vital energy that I hinted at on the first paragraph.
“We repeat what we do not repair.” —Christine Langley Obaugh
Of course, none of this happens voluntarily. Repression is a defense mechanism employed by the ego (the conscious part of our minds) to keep disturbing or threatening events from becoming conscious and hurting us. Its intent is to protect us from pain and hurt, and the way it does it is usually by either generating partial (or complete) amnesia of the traumatic event, or by creating disassociation between the feelings and the memory of an event. Thus, a person who was sexually abused as a child may not have any recollection of it whatsoever as an adult, or he/she may remember what happened, but have no feelings or emotions associated with the memory of it. That is when symptoms emerge and dysfunctions that can’t be treated by the medical community take place (inexplicable pain, insomnia, negative thoughts, etc.). The individual may, then, spend years of his/her life trying to treat (or live around) the physical disturbance unsuccessfully or, may engage in what psychoanalysts call “compulsion to repeat”: that is, they organize their lives around repetitive patterns of behavior and relationships that allows for unconsciously reliving and warding off traumatic memories, reminders, and affects. In this (very common) case, the person who was emotionally neglected as a child may feel inexplicable drawn to partners who are emotionally removed or self-centered as an adult. Or the person who experienced the parents’ love through spanking and beating may fall in love only with physically, verbally or emotionally abusive partners.
The goal of the compulsion to repeat? To recreate history and change its outcome, trying to gain mastery over something that we didn’t have control over as a child. This re-enacting holds the hope that this time we will get it right: If we act nicer, perform better, dress differently, find the right words, or make some other miraculous behavioral change then our partner (symbolic stand-in of the rejecting parent, or parents) will no longer rebuff and abuse us. Because deep down we tend to blame ourselves for the pain our loved ones put as through as children (adults tend to know better, right?). And when the result of that reenacting is nothing but the same as before (or worse), we blame that on destiny or karma: why do these things “keep happening” to me? It is only by remembering the original event and by experiencing the emotions associated with it that we are able to interrupt the compulsion to repeat, and we are able to move on to better, healthier lives.
How to work it out
While the use of repression as a defense mechanism creates neurosis (emotional distress and unconscious conflict, which are manifested in various physical or mental illnesses), its absence in an individual who is not psychologically and emotionally mature enough to deal with the trauma could lead to much, much worse outcome. In other words, repression may not be a process that takes place consciously, but it is there for a reason, and should be respected as such. Therefore, the work to make conscious unconscious feelings or memories should never take place without professional help.
But it must take place, because you need all that energy that you are using to keep those unpleasant feelings and memories out of consciousness available to you. You need it for the strength and stamina required to go out in the world and fight for your dreams, achieve your goals and meet your objectives. You need it to find inside you the motivation and drive to start moving, to plan your future and keep progressing. You need it to clear the air and understand what is really going on deep inside you, so that you can break repetitive cycles and patterns of behavior, and start choosing better romantic partners, friends and jobs. Regardless of what keeps you up at night, you will see that once you open the door to that scary closet and turn on the light, when you look under the bed and face the monster, you will find out that in the dark of the night things are much creepier than in the light of the day. You will realize that you are much stronger to deal with them than you initially thought. And you must do that, because there is a much happier life waiting for you to start living it.