"Trauma is a fact of life. Most of us have been impacted by an overwhelming incident at some point."
—Dr. Peter Levine, Trauma Expert and Founder of Somatic Experiencing ®
Trauma describes the response a person has to situations of extraordinary stress perceived by the nervous system as life-threatening or overwhelming. Trauma is a highly stressful experience. Whatever stress does to the body, trauma does to an even greater extent. “Freezing” in response to a threat increases the likelihood of traumatic symptoms. The longer the freeze response lasts, the higher the likelihood. Un-metabolized trauma can wreak havoc on the body much in the same way chronic stress can.
Two Basic Types of Traumatic Experiences
According to the Somatic Experiencing (SE) model for resolving trauma, there are two basic types of trauma: shock trauma and developmental trauma. Here is how SE defines them:
- Shock trauma is overwhelming and potentially life-threatening events we typically associate with the word trauma such as war, natural disasters, rape, accidents involving major organs or limbs or hostage situations. However, shock trauma can also include incidents of discovery and/or betrayal experienced in intimate partner relationships such as the revelation of sexual acting out or other significant secrets, sudden termination of a long-term relationship, or domestic violence.
- Developmental trauma is trauma that occurs in childhood. Developmental trauma can range from serious physical and/or sexual abuse to neglect. Children are significantly more vulnerable to developing traumatic symptoms because of their limited ability to process distressing events and their dependence on caregivers.
“Big-T” vs. “little-t” Traumatic Experiences
The most distressing events of your life will likely fall into the category of either “little-t” traumatic experiences or “Big-T” traumatic experiences.
While you may not have had an experience of shock trauma or developmental trauma, which we can call a “Big-T” traumatic experience, you have undoubtedly had a “little-t” experience of trauma. For example, children fall sometimes, and while the adults know that the child was in no danger of dying, to a child, falling was perhaps terrifying and utterly humiliating. Depending on that child’s individual experience, he or she might still be living with some degree of unprocessed traumatic material. We could call an experience like this a “little-t” trauma. You can think of all traumatic experiences as falling into one of these two categories:
“little-t” traumatic experiences “
Little-t” traumatic experiences are highly stressful or emotionally charged experiences we have that are not necessarily life-threatening but nonetheless overwhelmed or rattled us to the core. Bullying, verbal abuse, divorce, death of a loved one, and boundary violations, are some examples of “little-t” traumatic experiences. Such experiences may not result in PTSD symptoms, but they can still profoundly affect your thoughts, feelings, behavior, and relationships because they generate a threat response. Click here to learn about how the Autonomic Nervous System generates a threat response.
“Big-T” traumatic experiences
Big-T traumatic experiences are truly life-threatening events that get our nervous system so highly activated that we can “freeze”. Click here to learn more about how Autonomic Nervous System generates a freeze response. When our bodies freeze, the energy generated by the sympathetic nervous system so that we could flee or fight our way out of the situation can become bound, locked inside the body. The longer the freeze lasts, the more likely we are to develop symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Some examples of “Big-T” traumatic experiences are car accidents, rape, physical/sexual abuse, assault, kidnapping, natural disasters, and war/combat.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
At the core of trauma-related symptoms is a high level of arousal in the nervous system that began at the time of the traumatic experience and will not stop until it is de-activated.
PTSD is a cluster of symptoms that encompass a wide range of psychological (thought, emotion, and mood-related), physiological, and nervous-system-arousal symptoms. They include but are not limited to:
- Intrusive memories like dreams or flashbacks
- Mood issues like a persistent negative state
- Intense psychological reactions like outbursts of irritability or anger
- Feelings of intense distress and/or behaviors to avoid such intense distress
- Sleep disturbance
- Exaggerated startle response
- High levels of nervous system arousal inconsistent with what’s happening in the present moment.
People who have been through a traumatic experience in their lives may experience certain symptoms of PTSD even if they do not meet all of the criteria in order to be diagnosed with PTSD. At the core of these symptoms is a high level of arousal in the nervous system that began at the time of the traumatic experience. The intense arousal of the nervous system can lead to avoidance behaviors in order to regulate the arousal, but the arousal is not going to stop until it is de-activated. Furthermore, the arousal generates thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that when repeated over time creates a new neural pattern in the body, one that supports continued nervous system dysregulation.
Trauma is Correlated with Health Problems
In general, trauma work can be an essential part of healing from a functional medical problem and is certainly an important part of addressing the kinds of psychological symptoms like fear, anxiety, and panic attacks which many people with functional gastrointestinal symptoms experience. Even if you’ve been working in psychotherapy and or have talked about the traumatic experience, your body may still be holding on to a great deal of bound energy that has never been given a proper chance to be released.
The key to understanding and resolving trauma is tuning into and working directly with your nervous system. Relaxation and meditation can help to reduce symptoms associated with trauma, but they do not necessarily lead to a cessation of symptoms. You don’t have to tell the story of what happened in order to metabolize the experience. You just have to be willing to show up and to work with your nervous system at whatever pace it needs to go.
If you’ve had an obvious experience of “Big-T” trauma in your life, and you’ve never talked about it with anyone, or you’ve never done any kind of therapeutic work with your nervous system, consider working with this material to see if it helps your functional medical problem. If you’ve not had an obvious experience of “Big-T” trauma in your life but you have a functional medical problem, consider working with your “little-t” traumatic experiences. “Little-t” experiences can “add up” if left unresolved.
I have been extensively trained in Somatic Experiencing (SE), a form of therapy designed to help people to resolve trauma by working directly with the nervous system.