I think Trauma may be one of the least understood human conditions that we know of today. Even though there have been huge advances in the science and psychology of trauma, I think it is underestimated in how widespread it is, not only in war torn countries but in the United States and Western Europe as well, and how much it contributes to the violence and misery of human history. From entire societies to small families, trauma effects us all.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that trauma is at the root of much of the violence in the world, including in the Middle East and inner cities of America. Psychologists are starting to believe that trauma, if not properly treated, can get passed down from generation to generation, literally through our DNA. See this Interview with Rachel Yehuda about Jewish Holocaust survivors or this Ted Talk with Nadine Burke Harris about childhood trauma to get an idea where this new awareness is going.
A simple definition of trauma is a “deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” From a needs based perspective, trauma essentially occurs when one or more of our needs are not met in a severe way or for a very long time. This includes needs that are essential for our survival, such as health and safety, as well as some of our subtler needs, like like acknowledgment, appreciation and acceptance, especially when we are young. We can suffer from trauma when something happens to us that we can’t process in the moment, or if we are deprived of things we need.
Trauma is an event that for at least some period of time the toxic energy caused by the loss remains trapped in the body. As described in extensive detail in the books of Peter Levine, founder of Somatic Experiencing, a trauma release treatment that uses techniques shared by other mammals to release trauma, if trauma is released or discharged from the body in close to real time with the event that cause it, there may be very little lasting negative effect. This would be like being mindful of the traumatic experience as it happens. But normally one or more protective reactions kick in, such as shock, and often, especially in the case of abuse, social reactions like denial or threat of further abuse restrict the ability of the person to release the toxic energy.
So if we are able to release the toxic energy of trauma in the moment, experiencing it and shaking or crying or howling as needed, we often can come away whole. But if we suppress the energy with anger or denial and keep it suppressed, it then can affect our overall emotional and spiritual health.
Trauma can be a family disease. Much like shame, when trauma is untreated in parents, it often gets transferred to their children. This is especially true for traumatic childhood abuse. If a parent experienced rage or beatings by their parents and the trauma is still unreleased from their bodies, it is very common for them to rage or beat their own children, even if they have full intention of not doing so.