‘Trauma’ can refer to a serious or critical bodily injury, wound, or shock (medical trauma) or to an experience that is emotionally painful, distressful, or shocking (psychological trauma).  Psychological trauma is a normal response to an extreme event that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope and may result in lasting mental and physical effects.  It involves the creation of emotional memories about the distressful event that are stored in structures deep within the brain.  Traumatic memories can be triggered by sensory stimuli (ie..smells, sounds, touch, sight) that remind the person of the event.  Because of the way that memories of a traumatic experience are stored in the brain, a person who is triggered feels like the original trauma is happening all over again in the present moment; they experience the same physiological responses such as a sense of panic or freezing. This type of reaction impairs our ability to accurately assess present moment experiences.  In reality we may be safe, but our body and mind are telling us something different.  Mental health professionals refer to this type of trauma as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Somatic psychotherapies can be effective at remedying the underlying symptoms of PTSD.

Critical incidents such as a car accident or physical assault are obviously traumatic.  Experiencing war can expose a person to multiple traumas.  Life transitions can also be traumatic:  the death of a loved one, separation or divorce, job loss, an illness, anything that shakes up our sense of reality and who we are.  These traumatic experiences may overwhelm our ability to cope in a healthy way and to stay fully present.  We may begin to numb out or to get really busy as ways of coping.  In one sense, these strategies help us to survive overwhelming situations, but the cost is great in that we can lose our sense of aliveness and connectedness.

As an example, I want to tell you a personal story.  When I was on a working vacation on the other side of the world many years ago, my husband at the time told me that he loved someone else.  We had been together for twenty-three years, had three children together and a thriving business.  But, this story is not about him or even us, but about how I experienced that shock.  I was dazed and suddenly my whole world turned into one big question mark.  I wanted to run away and imagined jumping onto a plane alone, but we were just beginning our trip and the children were with us.  I could feel myself begin to divide, the part of me that was in shock and the part of me that needed to function to take care of the children and to put on a ‘normal’ face for them and others that we were working with.  On the outside I looked and functioned normally, but on the inside I felt like I was walking around cocooned in layers and layers of sticky, silky gauze, buffering me from the world around me.  Later, in grad school, I learned there was a term for this experience, when you leave yourself or divide yourself into parts because an experience is too overwhelming, ‘dissociation.’ This is one of many ways of coping in an overwhelming or traumatic situation.

Trauma can also occur very early on in our lives as ‘developmental trauma.’  As a child, we are constantly forming beliefs about our self and the world around us.  Beliefs such as:  ‘I am loved,’ ‘I am safe,’ ‘My needs will be met,’ ‘I can express myself,’ and ‘I will be heard’.  These beliefs operate at an unconscious level and we just accept that this is the way life is.  But what if we are living our lives with negative beliefs such as ‘I’m not loveable,’ ‘I’m not safe,’ ‘My needs will never be met,’ ‘It’s not OK to say what I feel,’ or ‘No one will ever hear me.’  Life can be pretty miserable if you are operating with such beliefs.  Therapy focusing on developmental trauma can surface these unconscious beliefs so that they can be challenged and new, more positive beliefs formed based on new experiences.

With all forms of trauma, the experience is stored in the body and mind.  Somatic (body-centered) psychotherapies can effectively and efficiently use the body as a doorway to exploration and healing as part of brief or long-term therapy.