Trauma is an experience – or a series of experiences – in which a person’s automatic survival response is activated. Our survival responses can be different. We have a mobilization response that includes fight or flight. In fight or flight mode, our body begins to take energy and pump it into our larger muscles, giving us the power and adrenaline needed to fight off an attack or flee from danger. We also have an immobilization response in which our body freezes or submits. This occurs when our system cannot handle the situation, and the only thing to do is to numb out in the hope that we will survive the experience. All of these are natural responses – they are our God-given way of preserving our life in the midst of dangerous situations. But what is trauma caused by? In this article, I look at three different causes of trauma.
1) Traumatic Events
There are big traumas in life that many people could recognize, such as a car accident, a shooting, rape, or abuse. Trauma can be an event or a series of events that seem too big for us to bear. The sudden and unforeseen death of a loved one can be a traumatic event. Losing our job or experiencing a serious injury can be a trauma. Getting a diagnosis of a severe health issue can also be a traumatic event. All of these can leave our body in a state of shock as it tries to process through the best way to survive the hardship.
2) Relational TraumaAbuse and neglect can create survival responses within our physiology. Our body can start to function in a state of hyper-arousal, in which we are always on the alert for the next danger or catastrophe to occur. Our body can also fall into a pattern of hypo-arousal, in which we become numb to the positive or negative stimulations of daily life. Often trauma survivors will fluctuate between a state of both hyper and hypo arousal. Having a significant other or a loved one constantly devalue and invalidate your emotions can be traumatic. Having someone who is significant to you constantly shifting between approachable and dangerous moods can also be traumatic. In relationships in which our body does not feel consistency, reliability, and security, we begin to form coping mechanisms in order to survive the difficulty within the relationship.
3) Developmental Trauma
Research has shown that our earliest years of life are an essential time for forming healthy attachments with our primary caregivers. Healthy attachments are formed when our caregivers are attuned and receptive to our needs. When an infant does not receive consistent responses to their cries for help, they begin to form ways of coping with their caregivers’ lack of awareness. This lack of connection and attunement can lead to developmental trauma. Martin Teacher, MD, PhD, writes: “Our brains are sculpted by our early experiences. Maltreatment is a chisel that shapes a brain to contend with strife, but at the cost of deep, enduring wounds. Childhood abuse isn’t something you “get over.” It is an evil that we must acknowledge and confront…” (The Body Keeps the Score, 149). Even as infants and young children, our body can retreat into survival mode if we experience that our needs not being met. Our needs can be emotional, physical, or psychological. When a child does not experience their caregiver as being aware of their needs, their body can function in a traumatic-response way.
Christian Counseling to Process Trauma
As a Christian counselor, I have seen that when people do not confront and work through the trauma in their lives – whether from one or more terrifying events, from years of neglect and abuse in their interpersonal relationships, or from their youthful experiences of unmet needs – their bodies continue to remember the trauma and they begin to function out of a traumatic response. It is important to allow our bodies and minds to understand that the trauma has passed. When we do not engage the mobilization and immobilization functions that took place at the time of our feeling of distress, then our body does not know that we are not currently in that situation any more. When our body does not know that our surroundings are safe, we become susceptible to re-victimization and are unable to live abundantly and to be free from the bondage of fear. Christian counseling provides a safe space in which we can talk with someone in order to create new experiences of attunement and care in our body. These new experiences increase our capacity to offer this attunement and care to ourselves and those around us, enabling us to live into greater intimacy in our relationships and to find more fulfillment in life.
“Blink of Life,” courtesy of Sara Young, freeimages.com; “Smiling Girl between snow,” courtesy of writer93, pixabay.com, absfreepic.com CC0 Public Domain License