Lianne Perry, MA, MSc., RCC
One of the things I notice in my practice is that trauma is a very misunderstood word. When many people hear the word “trauma”, they think of big, catastrophic events that could happen in one’s life like being in a car accident or what first responders or soldiers experience. That’s true and those things can constitute what we more commonly think of as trauma. We call those “big T” or “capital T” traumas. With this definition in mind, many people tell me, “Oh, I don’t have any trauma in my life history. Nothing major has really happened to me”. The thing to keep in mind is that trauma can also be smaller, seemingly less significant events that have occurred throughout your life, things that you may not have thought would have registered as “trauma” in your system. Things like having a parent that can’t regulate their emotions, having a parent that is hyper-focused on appearance, repeated messaging throughout your life (direct or indirect) that you’re somehow, in some way, not good enough, or being told that certain emotions (like anger or sadness) are not to be expressed. These are known as "little t" or "small t" traumas.
To put it simply, trauma can be anything over a person’s ability to understand or figure out in the moment. If it doesn’t make sense, it can get stuck in your system as trauma.
Does that surprise you?
Let’s say something happens and it doesn’t feel good. Your nervous system goes into high alert telling your brain “Oh boy, this doesn’t feel good at all. Do something!” Your brain says to your nervous system, “I agree, but I have no idea what the heck just happened! I don’t know what to do with it or how to process it because I don’t even know what’s going on”. And so instead of getting processed or filed away like other events of your day or life where your brain can make sense of it, it gets “stuck”, riding just under the surface of your conscious awareness. From that point on, anytime something happens that feels even a little bit like that other, yucky thing that happened, your brain and nervous system are activated that there’s some sort of “danger”, even though what’s happening may or may not be anything like that initial trauma. This is commonly referred to as a “trigger”.
Let’s put this is some common, everyday examples. Maybe you were a child that was told they weren’t allowed to leave the dinner table until every morsel on their plate was eaten. This led to feelings of “I am not in control” or “I am powerless”. Now you’re an adult and you find that you feel really uncomfortable, maybe even irrationally uncomfortable, whenever those feelings of loss of control or powerlessness come up. Or maybe in your adult life, you encountered a boss that was micro managerial or bullying. It’s years later, and you can completely, cognitively understand that the problem wasn’t you, it was the old boss. You’re “over it”. You’ve “moved on” from it. Yet, you find you’re hypersensitive to criticism from your current, supportive boss and feel like you’re one step away from getting in trouble at any moment, maybe irrationally so. Even though your rational brain knows that that’s not true, you feel nervous, hypervigilant, and just can’t relax at work. “This is not the same situation as what happened years ago,” you tell yourself. “Why can’t I just let it go?”
There are a lot of types of therapy that can help you with this. One of those is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy), in which I am certified and use extensively in my practice. EMDR uses bilateral stimulation of the brain, which is what happens naturally in the REM phase of sleep, to help your brain process some of these seemingly innocent, or not so innocent, things that have happened to you throughout your life. Your mind and body can then relax in situations where they might have been previously unable to. You’re completely conscious and present during an EMDR session, but bilateral stimulation of your brain allows your brain to just take a look at some of those things it once couldn’t figure out in the moment and say, “Oooooohhhh. THAT’S what that was. I get it! I can put that file away now”. That’s called reprocessing. When we work online, the bilateral stimulation of the brain is most often accomplished by following a little ball back and forth across your computer screen. Pretty simple, but the results can be transformative.
When we understand what trauma really is, it’s easy to understand how everybody, arguably, has some sort of trauma in their history. Recognizing that is the first step to healing your own trauma and transforming your life in ways you may not have thought possible.
If you’d like to learn more about EMDR, I wrote another blog about it, specifically, or you can use the “contact me” form on my website to set up a 15-minute free phone consultation. It is my great honour to help people heal from their various traumas and I would welcome the opportunity to help you do just that.