So, what is trauma? in 7 steps | Sarah Woodhouse

So, what is trauma? in 7 steps

Over the years a lot of people have asked me to explain trauma and traumatic reactions. Ten years ago, I gave really academic, scientific explanations.

No one actually fell asleep, but a few were close. Luckily for you I’ve refined my technique. In fact, this is my thing – I try to explain trauma in a way that everyone can understand. Why? Because trauma affects us all. So, here’s my seven-point explanation of trauma…

1     An experience is traumatic if we perceive it to be a threat that’s too big for us to handle. We feel threatened, overwhelmed and helpless, all at once.

2     Threats aren’t just things like car accidents and war. They’re also things that threaten our need for social connection – like being consistently ignored or belittled in a relationship.

3     During the threat, our survival response is set-off and our body and mind is flooded with stress hormones. These hormones lead to difficult feelings, thoughts, beliefs and physical sensations. The hormones also interfere with our ability to think, so our memory doesn’t work in the way it usually does.

4     The memory of the threatening experience isn’t properly processed down into our long-term memory bank. It’s active and hot, and still connected to the negative feelings (e.g., overwhelm, fear, helplessness), thoughts and beliefs (e.g., I’m unsafe, I’m unlovable) and sensations (e.g., anxiety symptoms) that were going on during the threat.

5     Later, when we’re reminded of the threat (say we see the same coloured car or are around the same type of person who ignored or belittled us) our memory of the threat is set-off and we’re bombarded with the same negative feelings, thoughts, beliefs and sensations. We call this being triggered.

6     When these old memories are set-off, some people know that they’ve been triggered, but a lot of people don’t. We experience a sudden flood of difficult feelings, negative thoughts and beliefs and anxiety-like sensations, and have no idea why. We have no idea it’s a trauma memory re-surfacing so we can’t make sense of ourselves. We feel disconnected from ourselves and the world.

7     People try and manage the sudden difficult feelings, thoughts and sensations. Some people cope in really empowering ways (e.g., talking to others about what’s going on, practicing coming back to the present moment). Many others cope in ways that cause them long-term problems (e.g., people-pleasing, compulsive busy-ness, over or under eating, avoiding people, having a drink)

Trauma has been widely misunderstood for years. In fact, still today, when I say I work in trauma people say to me: “oh, so you work with veterans?” Actually, sometimes I do, but that’s beside the point. The point is that fifty years ago we thought trauma was something that only happened to people after extreme and horrifying events. We also thought that trauma was only experienced as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Now we know this isn’t true. We know trauma happens after common, everyday experiences and we know that trauma isn’t only experienced as full-blown PTSD (it can be experienced as anxiety, depression, ill health, addiction and so much more). But because people still picture a wounded veteran with PTSD when I say the word trauma, they shut-off to the conversation.

I guess you could say I’m running a PR campaign for trauma. I’m re-branding it.

I’m making it something we all feel comfortable talking about. I’m doing this to help those who have experienced the big ‘T’ severe traumas, to help get rid of some of the infuriating, ridiculous stigma. And I’m doing it to help those who have experienced trauma, but who didn’t know it was trauma because it wasn’t a big ‘T’ type of traumatic event and they didn’t get PTSD.

I hope this explanation of trauma helped you understand trauma, and yourself, better. If you have any questions please get in touch. 

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Sarah Woodhouse is a trauma expert, research psychologist and writer who delivers people the knowledge and tools to recognise and overcome self-defeating cycles, to achieve personal freedom and success.

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