The CPTSD foundation’s website succinctly defines CPTSD as a term that “describes the results of ongoing, inescapable, relational trauma.” In this post I’ll delve into trauma, using a wider lens than is typical. I’ll differentiate between trauma and traumatic event, and explore in detail some of the many manifestations of trauma in our day-to-day lives.
Trauma as a Wound
The word trauma comes from the Greek word for wound. As author and trauma expert Gabor Maté points out, the two words are perfectly analogous in a number of ways. Wounds create a sensitive area that is painful to the touch; trauma makes us sensitive to emotional triggers. Wounds are covered with scar tissue that is inflexible, numb, and doesn’t grow; trauma’s impacts on a person can be described with precisely the same words. Trauma, therefore, can perhaps best be understood as a psychological wound.
With trauma, however, we have the opportunity to actively heal rather than passively wait for scar tissue to form. Rose Kennedy once said: “It has been said that time heals all wounds, I don’t agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue, and the pain lessens, but is never gone.” Here she’s referring to what most of us typically do with our trauma: wait for time to make it better, ignore it, or hope it goes away. One need not look too carefully at the state of the world to see how this is working out.
Cause & Effect
It’s important to differentiate between trauma and traumatic event; the latter being the cause of the former. We often think of trauma as being what happened, but it’s actually the internal consequences of what happened – how it impacts us today, and what we make it mean about ourselves. In the words of some of the world’s trauma experts:
“Many people think that trauma is the terrible event that happened to us. But trauma is the response that happens within the body’s nervous system.” – Thomas Hübl (mystic, healer)
“Trauma is not an event. Trauma is how we react to certain things that happen to us.” – Esther Perel (relationship psychotherapist)
“Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then. It’s the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside people.” – Bessel van der Kolk (trauma psychiatrist)
Overt vs. Covert
Traumatic events are often divided into two categories. The first of these is the more obvious one: Specific, overt events such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, or a car accident. Such events can inflict an immediate trauma on an individual, which if not addressed will often manifest in various ways for the rest of their lives.
The second type of traumatic event is more subtle (covert) and is often called developmental trauma. Here, the traumatic “event” is a prolonged misattunement between a child and his/her parents, resulting in pain for the child. Children have certain fundamental needs that, until the last few thousand years, were consistently met throughout our evolutionary history. When these needs aren’t met – as is quite often the case in modern societies – trauma results. Developmental trauma, therefore, is most often what didn’t happen rather than what did happen.
The resultant traumas from these two types of events are often distinguished as Big-T and Little-T trauma. While I understand the intent behind this language, it’s not phrasing that I use. There is nothing “little” about Little-T trauma. Not only is developmental trauma more common, but its insidious nature makes its impact on a person’s life harder to recognize. Many pathological behaviors, thought patterns, and tendencies – both at the individual and societal levels – are the result of pervasive developmental trauma and are so common today that they’re considered normal. Recognition is an important first step.
Note that this is by no means an intent to minimize overt trauma. The point is simply that both types of trauma, in my view, warrant equal attention.
The Effects of Trauma
Whether overt or developmental, trauma is a spectrum – and we’re all on it somewhere. The extent to which it affects us in our day-to-day lives is often shocking to discover, but the key to keeping in mind is that all of these impacts are coping strategies that, when they originally formed, were very intelligent responses to the environment. These adaptations came along to protect us, typically as a result of trauma during childhood, and at first were quite effective at doing so. Over time, however, they become maladaptive. When we say that someone “has CPTSD”, it is their trauma adaptations that we’re referring to.
Coping strategies are like puppet masters in the unconscious, controlling our behavior to a far greater extent than we imagine. But there’s a good reason for this: to our unconscious, these adaptations are matters of survival. They came along to quite literally help us survive. The level of importance that the unconscious, therefore, assigns to these strategies is precisely why it can be so difficult to turn them off. It’s also the reason why resisting them, as we’re so often prone to do, is generally destined to fail. (See the Turning against the Self section below.)
Below are some big-picture ways in which trauma adaptations impact us.
Disconnection from the Self
Trauma disconnects us from who we are, in the sense that coping strategies and adaptations aren’t fundamentally the real “us”. We tend to identify with these behaviors, not realizing that our real selves are hidden underneath. Someone may say, for example, “I’m a very anxious person”. But their true self isn’t anxious – the anxiety is simply a trauma response.
Another way of viewing this is that trauma splits off portions of us, which will then cause problems until they’re healed. As Thomas Hübl writes, “To survive, the person’s system splits off the physical, emotional, and mental experience of the trauma. If we don’t integrate that fragmented part, it will create side effects or symptoms that we call suffering. These symptoms will continually call our attention back to that unresolved past.”
Trauma also disconnects us from our bodies, causing us to view our bodies as something separate from ourselves. This is known as disembodiment and is a whole subject in of itself. The gist, however, is that when we view our body in a strictly utilitarian kind of way, we will tend to treat it marginally, ignore its wisdom, and even consider it a liability.
Disconnection from Life
We often operate in what might be called a semi-conscious trance state: mindlessly going from task to task, place to place, barely conscious of the individual decisions we’re making or the actions we’re performing. The classic example of a person going for a drive and not knowing how they got to their destination – being on autopilot, so to speak – describes a lot of our day-to-day lives far beyond just driving. While the intent isn’t to suggest that we “should” be 100% conscious at every moment, it’s interesting to consider just how much of our lives are lived semi-consciously, and what this might mean with respect to free will.
Disconnection from the Present Moment
Trauma disconnects us from the present moment in a number of ways. In day-to-day life, we tend to think that we’re reacting to the present, but often we’re reacting to the past. When someone triggers us, we can be sure that what is being triggered is past trauma. But even more subtly, the adaptations and coping strategies that we use are all based on the past – so we’re living in the past whenever we employ them. As mentioned above, in many cases we identify with these adaptations so much that we can’t separate from them – the result being that we’re living in the past, to some degree, at essentially every moment.
This can also show up when embarking on a healing journey. Trying to modify or get rid of our adaptations in a top-down kind of way – resisting or fighting against them – is another way of not being in the present. We disrespect who we are right now by trying to force change upon ourselves in order to become “better”. In this way, we live in the future rather than the present. This fake future can entrap us when we focus on a healing destination (“I want to fix myself“, “I should be more developed than I am“) rather than the journey (bringing curiosity and compassion to one’s patterns, and having a growth mindset).
Trying to live more in the present is wonderful in theory, but one needs to take into account that not being present was the better option during painful times. Thus, a tendency to live in the past or the future is yet another trauma adaptation. And like all the others, resisting it tends to not work – as anyone can likely attest who, when scatter-brained during meditation, has tried to force themselves to be more present.
Turning against the Self
Just as we can identify with trauma adaptations such that they seem like they are truly us, so too can we turn against them and make them the enemy. This can take shape in the form of resisting emotions/behaviors that we consider bad, criticizing ourselves, or blaming ourselves for our past (or its resultant coping mechanisms). This creates what might be considered a psychological autoimmune condition. In medicine, the term autoimmune condition refers to the immune system attacking the body’s own tissues. Over time, this causes immense damage and can lead to death. The mind’s version of this is no less severe: negative self-talk is a chronic condition for many of us, despite how “normal” it may seem.
Strange as it may sound, however, turning against the self in this way is also a coping strategy – one that served a valuable purpose when we were young. It is also a purely emotional response that doesn’t take direction from the intellect. For example, if someone tends to blame and shame themselves for their childhood (or adulthood) misery, they’re likely quite aware rationally that it’s not really their fault. But neither the person telling themselves to stop doing it nor someone else telling them will likely have an effect. This adaptation, therefore, warrants the same open curiosity and compassion as any other.
Living in Endurance
As a result of our coping strategies, we often end up largely living a life of endurance – enduring the parts of ourselves that we don’t like, enduring maladaptive thought patterns, enduring unpleasant and repetitive emotions, enduring behaviors that we subsequently regret, and enduring how others trigger us. The calling within us to heal is the part of us that doesn’t want to endure any longer. Honoring this part of ourselves is the beginning of our journey.
The word heal evolved from an Old English word that meant to make whole. While today we typically think of healing as curing or eliminating what ails us, its older definition was broader in scope, and recognized that humans strive for wholeness. While the specific meaning of wholeness could be debated, what’s clear is that trauma takes us away from it. Trauma disconnects us from ourselves by splitting off, shutting down, and hyper-activating various parts of our minds and bodies.
The healing journey is therefore one of returning to wholeness by reconnecting with ourselves. How precisely this is achieved will vary for each person. From therapy to yoga to psychedelics, the list of available modalities is a long one.
Trauma-Centric Mental Health Practitioner and Parenting Coach
Internal Family Systems (IFS), Compassionate Inquiry, Therapeutic Coaching