According to Gabor Mate, trauma can be understood as a wound that hardens a person psychologically and interferes with the ability to grow and develop. It creates pain and out of that pain a person acts out. Trauma is not what happens to you but it is about what happens inside of you as a result of what happened to you. Trauma scars a person, making the person more rigid and defensive and less flexible and capable of feeling.
Bessel Van Der Kolk describes trauma as an event or experience that has a significant impact on the ‘survival’ or animal part of the brain. When trauma happens our danger signals become disturbed and we become ‘hypo’ (low) or hyper (high) aroused or numbed. We can regress into fear, aggression, or paralysis, resorting to primitive survival responses. Trauma changes the nervous system and alters how we assimilate memory and leaves us reactive to anything that resembles the original experience. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress include severe anxiety, irritation and agitation, depression, hostility and distrust, fear and aggression, hypervigilance, numbness, lack of impulse control, self-destructive behaviours and risk-seeking, emotional detachment, avoidance, isolation, flashbacks and disturbed sleep. Repetitive and pervasive traumatic stressors that do not pose a risk to life impair a child’s development. Trauma is the inability to be in one’s body, including the ability to feel pleasure and satisfaction. Resma Menakem describes trauma as anything that happens “too much, too fast, too soon, for too long”, coupled with an absence of what should have happened that didn’t.
Trauma can be understood as the sudden rupture of attachment bonds (De Zuleta, 2006). Our need for others to sustain us physically and emotionally means that in their absence we become ill and depressed. At the root of our experience of early loss of the attachment figure is deprivation or ‘self-object loss’, and the resulting failure in attunement. In infancy the disruption or absence of this interactive experience is a key factor in creating neurophysiological changes that make us and other primates more vulnerable to aggressive or violent behaviour. This is the outcome of a damaged attachment system – a failure of attunement and deficiency in psychobiological regulation.
Trauma is like a virus (Conti, 2021). As it harms one person, ‘it replicates and jumps to another’ p329). Post-traumatic stress disorder is a social disease that ripples across and down through generations (Bloom, 2013). The key to treating it is other people. Fragmentation is the hallmark of trauma and so integration is lies at the heart of healing. Traumatised people cannot put themselves back together again but with the help of others, they can heal.
Trauma theory instructs us that most psychiatric disorder is the result of ‘normal reactions to abnormal situations’ (Bloom, 2013). This is created mainly by social systems that fail to provide support to traumatised children – a protection that is their right. Knowledge of trauma and attachment overturns many of our ideas about human nature and development. Labelling people as ‘deviant’ places the problem in the individual while ignoring the causes which is dismissed as ‘making excuses’. Trauma theory challenges this because it places the aetiology of most mental health and criminal problems in the social environment. It moves from an illness model to an injury one.
Trauma can get passed onto the next generation disconnected from verbalised memory so that people are unable to make sense of the feeling and place it in its proper context (Bloom, 2013). By ignoring traumatic memory, we create a ‘psychic abscess’ that infects generations to come. By the time it reaches the third and fourth generations it is passed on without any cognitive framework through the attachment relationship. If you trace back any family history you will likely find repeated traumatic experience that create impairments in the capacity for healthy parenting.
It was Freud who first drew attention to the repetition compulsion – the human tendency to repeat the past (Bloom, 2013). In the aftermath of traumatic experience, people unconsciously repeat the past through their actions. The trauma response determines these repetitive behaviours in what is called ‘traumatic re-enactment’. The memories of trauma are dissociated, nonverbal and unintegrated. This need to repeat is a compulsion – an urge that is impossible to resist even if consciously the person knows it is wrong. This is the dissociated contents that are ‘pressing’ to be expressed. When it is possible to see it coming it is possible to stop acting and starting thinking about, feeling and integrating the split off material. We are designed to function at optimal integration and so any barrier to integration will create a compensatory mechanism to overcome it. Splitting traumatic memories saves us in the short-term but these experiences must be integrated in the long-term. Janet and Freud argued that what causes trauma to be repeated is that is resides as mute, unsymbolised and unintegrated experience. For these affects to become conscious, they have to be put into words. Re-enactment behaviour is repetitive and ritualised and not seen for what it is – a communication to the social group.
Bloom, S. L. (2013). Creating sanctuary: Toward the evolution of sane societies. Routledge.
Conti, P. (2021). Trauma: The invisible epidemic: How trauma works and how we can heal from it. Sounds True.
Kolk, B. V. (2014). The body keeps the score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma. Penguin UK.
Zulueta, F. D. (2006). From pain to violence: The traumatic roots of destructiveness. John Wiley & Sons.