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Trauma 101

"Trauma" has become a buzzword and a part of the cultural lexicon as of late. But what exactly is trauma? I am here to break it down for you.

Trauma can be described as an extremely stressful event(s) that overwhelms an individuals existing coping mechanisms that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being. Not every difficult event is trauma, and not all trauma will cause PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder.) 70% of adults have experienced a trauma in their lifetime, but only 3.5% of the population develops PTSD as a response. Women are twice as likely to experience PTSD, have a longer duration of symptoms, and display more sensitivity to stimuli. However, these statistics may be skewed by underreporting by men. Symptoms of trauma can include numbing, hypervigilance, hyperarousal, dissociation, nightmares, flashbacks and somatic concerns including chronic headaches, digestive issues, and chronic illness. This is not an exhaustive list.

So what happens during a trauma?

When we experience a trauma, the amygdala, a structure in the brain responsible for detecting threats is activated. It responds by sending out an alarm to multiple body systems to prepare for defense. The sympathetic nervous system jumps is activated and releases adrenaline and noradrenaline that prepare the body for a fight-flight-freeze-fawn response. Essentially, the higher developed "smart mind" shuts off, and the limbic system, or "lizard brain" is in control and is solely responsible for keeping us alive. With higher functioning down, memories cannot be processed properly. This is why traumatic memories are often fragmented and sensory instead of narrative. If the response is thwarted and the response is not completed, the energy gets stored in the body as trauma. Dr. Peter Levine argues that traumatic symptoms are not caused by the event itself, but by the frozen energy residue that did not get to be discharged. Like popular trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk states "the body keeps the score." To heal trauma is a matter of healing both mind and body. Bessel van der Kolk states that insight-oriented therapy will help clients to understand what happened to them as well as their reactions, but will not rid the client of the trauma. To truly heal, the body must expel the stored energy inside it. We must tell the narrative story of what happened to us, and heal the somatic energy that still lives inside the body. Therapy modalities that can help include narrative (talk) therapy, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, Sensorimotor processing, among others. These modalities should be paired with somatic, embodied practices including dancing, yoga, and weight training. Other important factors in healing trauma include embodiment, empowerment and community. Stay tuned for more information on trauma and how to heal!

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