The concept of trauma and the impact it has on our life is complex. What is trauma?
Trauma is an overwhelming experience that has a negative impact on an individual’s mental and emotional processing ability—in the moment and in the future—because of what they have experienced in the past.68 Trauma frequently refers to an experience that is beyond an individual’s capability to effectively adapt—an event or series of events that affects our ability to predict an outcome. This can easily happen during childhood: creating a maladaptive mental system that negatively affects the individual’s interpersonal abilities, at the subconscious level, well into adulthood.
The key word is experience. We are born with thousands of neurons, but with few connections between them.69 We build the operating system of our brain from experience: we are not born with a pre-programmed brain. Comparatively, we are vulnerable and dependent much longer than animals. This vulnerability is the first experience we have in life and it lays the foundation of our mental operating system. A toddler’s brain develops so easily in response to stimulation that it absorbs everything uncritically. After age two, the brain starts to rely on the circuits it has developed rather than changing to fit every new input.
This foundational system in our brain is developed very early in life. If we experience trauma in our early childhood, it can significantly influence our perception of our world. As a result, children who have experienced trauma are developing their mental operating system with tainted, faulty circuitry in an attempt to avoid pain and experience some resemblance of pleasure. Later in life, as an adult, we can end up struggling to respond to pleasure and pain in ways that are redemptive. Our mental operating system—our brain—has been programed in a way that has twisted our perception of ourselves, others, and God. In a very real sense, this is one of the main reasons we struggle to manage our relationships.
Choosing to deal with our past trauma can be difficult, but there is hope.
For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
ROMANS 8:38-39 NKJV
Isn’t it interesting that Paul doesn’t mention the past? Even though his point is that truly nothing can separate us from God’s love—because His love for us is so constant— it is possible to allow our past to make us feel like we are separated from His love. We listen to lies from our past rather than hearing the truth of His love. We may feel that our past behaviors will keep us from relationship with God, but this scripture is very clear: NOTHING can separate us from the love of God. Processing our past pain and trauma allows us to develop healthy relationship with God and others.
As a child we had no power to keep ourselves safe. We had to rely completely on the development of our brain to figure out how to stay safe. Today, as adults we have many resources:
Despite this, the area of our brain that was developing during traumatic times is so powerful, it will override all our resources and logical thought processes. We will find ourselves triggered by the unresolved nature of pain that pulls us back into unhealthy behaviors: leading us to self-medicate and seek pleasure through sex, pornography, masturbation, alcohol, food, spending, and other addictive behaviors.
My mother was hardly ever at home. She worked so hard to provide for us, believing that her work and financial provision was the best way to show us love. My father was an alcoholic and constantly changing jobs, which created anxiety for my mother and only made her work longer hours.
I felt so lonely. Neither of my parents were there when I came home from school. I did my homework, made myself dinner, and often went to bed without even seeing my parents. I felt lonely at school too. My classmates teased me about my darker skin. The other girls at school got so much attention: the boys loved the athletic, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls. That was not me.
My mom loved treats and often shared with me. These rare moments were so precious. My mom had great taste when it came to quality desserts. I loved when she would say, “Let’s go get a treat!” At the same time, she often made negative comments about my body.
“Are you going to wear your hair like that so you stand out so much?”
“Your legs are starting to jiggle, do you want me to get you a gym membership?”
“I bought this fat-free dressing for you.”
“What is wrong with your skin? Why do you have acne?”
I began to hate the way I looked. I thought that if I looked different then maybe people would like me more. I bought fashion magazines and scrolled through social media, wishing I looked like someone else. I fantasized about being confident and sexy in my own body. I tried to control my food intake so I wouldn’t gain anymore weight, and at the same time, felt like food was my only friend.
Food became a source of comfort when I was home alone. I thought about what I was going to eat as soon as school got out. I was obsessed. After school, I would make a delicious meal and sit in front of the TV, wishing I looked like the actors on the screen. After I finished eating, I hated myself for not having control. I would go to the bathroom and vomit. I was smart: I knew the consequences—that I could die from bulimia—but I couldn’t stop myself. I would often think to myself, How did I get here? Why can’t I stop? God, please help me.
When it comes to identifying trauma in our lives, there are three common elements that interfere with our ability to recognize the reality of our trauma.
In many ways, we minimize our trauma. This happens when we experience a life-changing event or series of events but never tell anyone about it. We bury it, stuffing it deep in our soul, with the intent of hiding it from the outside world forever. We move on with life as though nothing happened. We attempt to live as if we are unscathed by the experience.
If we live with a distorted view of our trauma, we fail to see the reality of our trauma, especially compared to others. We tell ourselves, “I’ve never been…” or “I was never the victim of…,” attempting to convince ourselves that our trauma was not as bad as that of the next person. This reinforces the illusion of our trauma, as we continue our mental mantra: What happened to me wasn’t so bad.
As we work to minimize our trauma, justifying it through comparison, we become protective of our trauma. We keep it hidden from ourselves so we don’t have to feel it. We keep it hidden from others so it remains lifeless. We think that protecting our trauma stops it from taking on a life of its own. We’re afraid the image we’ve created to protect us will disappear. We live in fear, knowing that if we tell someone about it and their face emphatically reflects the pain we’re trying to hide, we will no longer have the power to keep the effects of our trauma at bay. The floodgates will open. In that moment, we will feel forced to deal with the truth of our trauma.
There are two types of trauma: trauma of infringement and trauma of abandonment.70
Trauma of infringement reflects things done to us, characterized by the intensity of the event. This would include experiences such as combat or natural disaster, rape or sexual assault, extreme physical or verbal abuse, and more. In many cases, these events were infrequent, but intense.
Trauma of abandonment reflects things kept from us, characterized by the frequency of the event. This would include neglect, a lack of support, open rejection, and more. In many cases, these events happened several times, even consistently, but were more mild.
Naturally, we think that infringement trauma would have a greater impact on lives; however, as indicated on the graph below, abandonment trauma can be devastating and have an equally profound impact on our lives.
As indicated, an experience of rape or sexual assault can result in extreme trauma; and yet, a consistent experience of neglect can also result in extreme trauma.71
Unfortunately, we all experience trauma. In the moment, we may not recognize it as trauma, but it’s important to identify the way our traumatic experiences have impacted our lives.
Discussing trauma can be a difficult process and may uncover some buried emotions. If you feel uncomfortable or anxious when answering the following questions, it may indicate an area of deep trauma. In some cases, personal counseling may be required to process past trauma. Please talk with your group leader about a counseling referral if needed or visit puredesire.org/counseling to request a free consultation.
When it comes to identifying specific traumatic events in our past, we tend to take a chronological perspective, viewing one event followed by another. While this may be an effective strategy, we often fail to recognize how the specific events are profoundly connected, yielding a much deeper level of trauma. However, when we look at traumatic events happening concurrently—happening at the same time—we gain a more accurate picture of the depth of our trauma.
Look at the following example:
In the above example, her parent’s divorce and the sexual abuse from her boss were traumatic events, but they put into motion several other events that were equally traumatic and happening at the same time.
If we want to fully understand the impact of our trauma, it is helpful to look at events concurrently—everything that is happening at the same time.
Using the following timeline, indicate four major areas of trauma from your past and the events that were happening concurrently.
Complete the FASTER Scale, Group Check-in, Self-Care lesson, Thoughts/Feelings
Awareness Log, and Change & Growth Analysis in your Unraveled: Weekly Tools before
the next group meeting