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I'm changing my mind about trauma
A revisioning of trauma models and an invitation to reconsider trauma as a societal, cultural, physiological, psychological, philosophical, and spiritual problem.
I am what some might call a trauma specialist–I have hundreds of hours of training, practice, and supervision in trauma treatment primarily via Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (a somatic method created by Pat Ogden) and other smaller, individual trainings offered by the lead experts in this field through IFS, trauma-sensitive mindfulness, Polyvagal Theory, Peter Levine, Janina Fisher etc. I’ve also read through a variety of the books on the subject from both a somatic, psychological, and archetypal perspective. And I’m a trainee psychotherapist.
Trauma fascinates me.
And yet, I’ve been doubting for a while the way trauma is currently portrayed.
As someone who has eagerly spent so much of their time and resources on deepening their understanding of trauma, I became curious about what possessed me to pursue this path so fervently; why, for the first two years of my psychotherapy training, I was so sure that everything “wrong” about a person was due to childhood trauma.
Cancer? Trauma. Intimacy issues? Trauma. Pepsi over Coca-Cola? Definitely trauma (I kid, but seriously, even Pepsi doesn’t like Pepsi).
Sometime last year, my evangelical allegiance to “healing trauma” as the main focus of therapy shifted. Perhaps it was a maturing in my own training and practise; perhaps it was a personal maturation; perhaps both.
But for months, I struggled to articulate it–most often I felt a discomfort at the increasing number of TikTok dances or Instagram Reels where a (typically white, conventionally attractive young woman) would tell me that various parts of my personality were a trauma response and that I should try shaking it off or tapping it away. It felt ignorant, offensive, and uncomfortably exhibitionistic. It felt shameful because I used to think like that too. And, most of all, it felt incredibly disrespectful towards the trauma I was actually encountering in my practise.
It wasn’t until I read Brian James’ recent brilliant essay on psychedelic therapy’s obsession with trauma healing that some of my own thoughts began to crystallise.
Since writing and teaching help me make sense of my thoughts, I’ll attempt to share my own evolving understanding of trauma here; why I think it’s such a big phenomenon outside the therapy room today; why our understanding of it feels incomplete; and how I consider trauma work as part of my own transpersonal, integrative, somatic practise.
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Everything is trauma!
I started learning about trauma right after coming back from a psychedelic retreat, where I’d had the terrifying experience of a kundalini awakening. Without any context for the odd process my body was going through, I felt scared by the involuntary tremors, shakes, and movements my body would spontaneously go into. In fact, I had shaken vigorously throughout all my psychedelic experiences. And I had no idea what to make of it.
My therapist at the time, who was specialised in psychedelic integration, pointed me to Peter Levine–and so, I learned that trauma is stored in the body. Through Peter’s own example, I understood that the body naturally completes the stress response in most mammals through involuntary shakes and tremors; it’s only us, humans, that seem to remain stuck in the freeze survival response, getting traumatised. I watched the video of the polar bear shaking off the fear of having been caught with a sense of religiosity–like I discovered something ancient and numinous.
* Peter Levine doing a live demo on me during the Sacred Wounds conference by Science and Non-duality in 2021
Everything started to make sense. For the first time, the magnitude of my childhood suffering felt validated. A theory explained why I had struggled in so many areas of my life and why some things hurt more than they should’ve. It allowed me to feel compassion for myself. It explained other people’s nasty behaviour and helped me feel compassion for them too. And, most importantly, it gave me hope that I could move forward through this type of work.
But it also became the only lens through which I saw the world.
Everyone was a reduced to a walking-talking trauma response. A quote by Gabor Maté resonated deeply and became like a mantra: “Much of what we call personality is not a fixed set of traits, only coping mechanisms a person acquired in childhood.” Everything about me felt like a reaction to my childhood, something to be fixed so that an ideal version of Maria could resurface from all that pain.
Something about it all felt promising and also kind of grandiose. It felt like we had finally found what was wrong with humanity and we had a way to fix it. The story was simple: trauma was hiding in the body, so if we want any chance at happiness in this lifetime, we better find it.
The spectacle of trauma
But why has trauma become such a mainstream phenomenon now? Trauma is hardly a new thing in psychotherapy, and neither is working somatically. Despite the self-appointed social media trauma experts touting somatic therapy as something totally new, clinicians had been working with the body for decades.
Plus, non-white cultures have had their own ways of dealing with suffering and stuck energy through their own paradigms far before the clinical world “discovered” it.
However, this novel obsession with trauma feels like a major revelation for humankind that’s springing out of Western science alone. Bessel’s book, which I struggled to read despite my special interest in trauma, is a worldwide bestseller with laypeople. Trainings like Internal Family Systems (IFS), Gabor Maté’s Compassionate Inquiry, or Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing (none of which require a psychotherapy license to practise and work with trauma), are almost impossible to get on due to selling out instantly.
It’s also the first time therapy has become a public spectacle. What began as a movement to democratise psychological knowledge has turned into sexy dances, awkward childhood reenactments, listicles of all the ways your parents traumatised you, or Gabor Maté diagnosing Prince Harry on video for public entertainment (and no less than $50). Scroll for a couple of minutes on Instagram and TikTok and it’ll feel like every second person is a trauma guru–all repeating the same dumbed-down ideas and selling you their course on nervous system regulation.
And I can’t help but wonder:
What happens to our critical thinking and discernment when we consume complex ideas in small, dumbed-down chunks, on a platform designed for viral entertainment, not verified education?
Does therapy (and particularly trauma) speak empower us to seek the help we need, or does it give us the false illusion of knowing what’s going on?
On a larger scale, how is the current paradigm of trauma helping us make sense of our lives?
Agreeing on a definition of trauma
Part of this conundrum is that we still don’t have a clear definition of trauma.
As Ali Beiner explored in his excellent piece The Truth About Trauma, the world’s leading experts don’t see eye to eye on what trauma is and how to treat it, as illustrated through his interviews with Bessel van der Kolk and George Bonanno.
For example, Bessel was among the first to articulate the somatic imprint of trauma in a way that instantly clicked. He brought us the understanding that the body keeps the score, while the mind hides the score–in other words, we don’t always remember the event that traumatised us, but our bodies contain the impact through patterns of nervous system dysregulation, posture, and adaptive strategies for coping with overwhelm.
He also wrote extensively on childhood abuse and neglect, and unsuccessfully sought to expand trauma from its typical definition relating only to PTSD towards also including “developmental trauma disorder” (childhood trauma) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). In fact, he was among the many experts discussing the difference between “big T” and “little T” trauma and bringing more weight to issues of early life abuse.
While I’ve only read parts of his book, Bonanno argues that trauma occurs far less often than we think. In his view, we all go through potentially traumatic events, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we get traumatised. Instead, we go through a natural process of recovery, sometimes “coping ugly”, until the issue is organically resolved. To support this, he offers a potent example of 9/11 survivors not taking up the free counselling services extensively advertised afterwards, since the majority went through an organic process of coming back to balance.
More interestingly, he traces the evolution of trauma as a cultural idea in his somewhat contentiously titled chapter, “The Invention of PTSD”. While he appears to dismiss the fact that PTSD is a physiological issue as much as a psychological one, he highlights an important factor:
“A disease model of PTSD carries a rigid essentialist assumption that people either have the disorder or they don’t. There is no in-between. The problem here is that psychological problems, including the reactions people have to potentially traumatic events, tend not to fall into neat categories. We can invent categories. That’s easy. But inventing a category doesn’t mean it actually exists in nature.”
I’m in no position to decide whether Bessel or Bonanno are right. However, what I see in my own practise and what I’ve experienced myself sits somewhere in between. When poked around, I’ve been surprised to see that physical symptoms, breathing patterns, or postures tend to naturally evoke a painful memory without much prompting from my side. The body really does keep the score. And interestingly, contacting a positive body state can bring up joyful memories from early life, too.
In practice, trauma is extremely complex. PTSD, complex trauma, structural dissociation, attachment or developmental trauma, neurodiversity, and personality disorders often manifest in conjunction. Sitting with complex clients, it can sometimes feel impossible to discern what you’re seeing and whether it’s all just trauma. In fact, diagnosing one over the other seems to come down more to the clinician’s training and theoretical bias, rather than the client’s lived experience.
I’ve seen this happen often with clients switching therapists and suddenly presenting differently. Sitting in supervision, it can feel like someone had swapped the client for their doppelgänger who was finally responding to therapy and improving.
Shaking it off?
And then there’s the treatment problem. Fresh into my trauma training, I believed, like many others, that healing trauma is a matter of discharging the survival energy from the body–in Taylor Swift terms, shaking it off. It’s another story that fit my experience well (I have a sensitive nervous system and shake easily) and came with a neat method–but in practice, I found that most of my clients didn’t go into spontaneous tremors when processing a traumatic event. And when they did, it felt like it was more due to my prompting it, rather than an organic experience in their body.
My confusion was partly due to being a novice, but also due to the lack of clarity over what trauma really is. I was sticking more to stories and theories, rather than what was presenting in the room. I was thinking simplistically when trauma is anything but that.
Of course, not all trauma manifests the same and I’m very grateful for the framework of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP) for clarifying that. It took me two years to understand the difference between trauma and developmental injury. In this model, trauma strictly refers to events that overwhelm the nervous system and require treatment through completing the cycle by discharging arousal, completing the body’s response, or reinstating a defence.
Developmental injuries are different. They are not trauma, in the way it was defined above–although they can sometimes have a trauma element to them. These are the “little t” traumas that Bessel talks about and require a different approach, like working with child parts or with the therapeutic relationship. It’s less about shaking it off, rather than repairing inner and outer attachment bonds on a cognitive, emotional, and sensorimotor level. This is what most of us (hopefully) are in therapy for–and while it’s painful and limiting, is it fair to call it trauma? I don’t know.
And the problem in defining trauma goes way deeper. A large part of the physiological theory of how trauma manifests in the brain and nervous system relies rather heavily on an outdated theory.
According to the triune brain theory, developed by neuroscientist Paul MacLean in the 60s, the human brain evolved and operates as three independent parts: the reptilian brain, responsible for our survival responses and basic bodily functions; the mammalian brain, responsible for our emotions; and the neocortex, where all our higher cognitive, analytical, and self-reflective capacities lie. This is often used to explain how overwhelming events trigger the amygdala, in the limbic brain, which then activates the survival defences in the reptilian brain, preventing information from reaching the higher parts of the brain that would allow the integration of the event.
It’s a nice theory and it’s likely that if you read any book on trauma you’ve already come across it. Even in The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel writes that “the brain is built from the bottom up”. I taught the mode myself for years using Daniel Siegel’s hand model to demonstrate how we “flip our lid” when we’re triggered.
Ultimately, like a lot of the theories we work with, it’s a story–albeit a powerful one and simple enough one to feel like we can understand what’s happening inside us. It feels true. Most clients I share it with resonate immediately, some of them to the point that they report feeling their amygdala pulsate or enlarge when triggered.
But newer studies in neuroscience reveal that the brain didn’t evolve in three stages and doesn’t function as three independent units. A response to the triune brain theory suggests that the brain works interdependently across multiple networks. Emotion and cognition as not as separate as we think. And instead of merely responding to external stimuli in the three-stage manner described above, the brain adapts to both internal and external factors and responds accordingly, to maintain homeostasis or allostasis (stability through change).
“The term ‘limbic system’ is no longer a commonly used term to describe how the brain functions. ‘Limbic system’ also loses its utility in a clinical setting; because affect is a culmination of a wide range of interrelated processes, including synthesis of internal and external stimuli, arousal, and memory, approach to disorders characterized by affect dysregulation is limited by the triune brain approach. And, finally, the brain does not act by simply responding to a stimulus. Instead, it predicts internal and external needs and adapts accordingly. Incoming stimuli interact with the current state in which the brain is.”
(from this research paper)
I’m not educated enough in neuroscience to tell you what the implications this has on trauma. However, the adaptive brain theory seems to add that our current affective, cognitive, and social state also plays a role in how we respond to outer events. The brain is not a fixed structure, but it’s continually adapting, therefore, a disease model proposed by the authors would look at what interferes with the brain’s capacity for accurate interoception, error prediction, and adaptation.
More importantly, it’s also revealing that a large part of psychiatry has been built on a faulty theory. Similar to Bonanno’s challenge of the PTSD diagnosis:
“Kozak and Cuthbert (67) note that ‘there is thus an a priori assumption that the diagnoses refer to real disorders, with ensuing assumptions that they involve a unitary pathophysiology and psychopathology and that the task of a science of disorders is to find the underlying biology of the specific disease entities… [but these] assumptions now [appear] to be false… these approaches have failed to produce significant advances in the understanding or treatment of mental disorders’ (p. 287)”
(from the same research paper, bold mine)
Our understanding of trauma becomes even more complicated when taking into account how the brain and nervous system develop even before we’re born.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge my ignorance here–before reading Sue Gerhardt’s seminal book “Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain”, I’d never considered that we don’t come into the world equipped with the same nervous system. According to Gerhardt, “the baby is an interactive project, not a self-powered one”–we develop in response to our environment.
The first months in utero are hugely influential for brain development. Mother’s unhealthy stress can lead to overdeveloped amygdalas in babies, while other brain areas may under-develop. It can even increase the future adult’s propensity to store fat on the tummy (damn it!). Throughout pregnancy, anxiety in the mother can influence the baby’s stress resilience and even lead to later behavioural and emotional problems or ADHD symptoms. Then, after birth, the relationship with the primary caregiver creates enduring attachment patterns embedded in the nervous system:
“In the early months of life, the organism is establishing just what the normal range of arousal is, establishing the set point at which its systems will attempt to maintain.”
(Sue Gerhardt, “Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain”)
Among many fascinating facts, the book truly demonstrates to me how, even in a culture so preoccupied with mental health and trauma, we seem to remain willingly ignorant of the enormous influence of pregnancy and early life parenting.
As a woman of (conventionally) child-bearing age, raised by fairly traditional parents, I had never heard of any of these basic issues before. Quite the opposite: a significant part of the pseudo-feminism I’ve written about before relies on women denying their biology and acting as men: self-sufficient, ambitious, and suppressing their periods so that they can keep up with a masculine hormonal cycle.
I’m aware that the conversation about women’s status in society expands beyond the scope of this essay. However, we cannot deny that our internalised patriarchy prevents us from acknowledging pregnancy as a deeply impactful physical, emotional, and spiritual transition that requires heaps of support. Stuck between wanting to “have it all” and not really having a choice in the matter due to economic challenges, we bring into the world children who are ill-equipped to deal with stress and more easily traumatised.
“Many parents now turn to substitute care at an even earlier age, despite the fact that the need to keep costs down means that its quality rarely matches that of parental care. These unfolding processes affect the lives of millions of small children. Yet we keep stumbling from one unintended consequence to the next.” (Sue Gerhardt, “Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain”)
The cycle continues.
And while these arguments don’t help narrow down what trauma means, I think they reveal just how complex an issue it is in our culture today. Like I mentioned above, a lot of our understanding of trauma relies on stories–which influence not only how we see our suffering, but how we deal with it.
The lack of clarity over what trauma is may lead us to believe that we’re more traumatised than we are. We might feel like a victim, powerless against our past. We might become passive and believe that people who hurt us are automatically traumatising us, forgetting that as adults we are also participants in our relationships.
We might feel entitled for special accommodations in public spaces, controlling what can and cannot be discussed due to its potential triggering aspect.
At the core of this, I think we’re missing out on something crucial. Trauma isn’t just a popular psychological problem at the moment. Lacking a deep rooting in spirituality or religion, we’ve attached to trauma existential and numinous qualities. We believe in it. We see it everywhere. And this has large implications.
So, finally, I want to share here the trauma model that I hold in my practise, as a result of what I shared above. Let’s go.
Trauma is a societal, cultural, physiological, psychological, philosophical, and spiritual problem.
Amongst the many trauma experts out there, I have yet to find one who discusses it from more than one or two perspectives. However, it seems essential to me that we cannot discuss or treat trauma without a thorough consideration of all its aspects. I believe that the incomplete image of trauma has a few dangerous ramifications not just for therapeutic interventions, but for our collective consciousness too.
A societal phenomenon
For example, by not seeing it as a societal level, we place the onus on the individual and their psychotherapist (when they have access to one) to treat symptoms and restore some sort of equilibrium. We look for causes in childhood and find blame in the parents or the immediate family–which isn’t incorrect, just incomplete.
James Hillman warned against this tendency in Western psychology repeatedly, suggesting that we are in fact parented by everything around us; it’s not just about mum and dad. But we’d rather confront anything but the corner we’ve pushed ourselves in in the West through our excessive rational thinking, capitalism, the patriarchy, the wealth distribution, the climate crisis, racism, misogyny and so on.
Going back to the adaptive brain theory, this may help us reconsider our trauma responses beyond the context of our imperfect or abusive childhoods. We may wonder if we would still react the same way to our triggers if we didn’t struggle financially, didn’t have to raise three children alone, or had more job stability in the present.
If trauma is a part of life, then perhaps it’s not so much what happened to us, but the current conditions of our lives which don’t allow our brains to adapt.
A cultural phenomenon
When we miss out on the cultural aspects of trauma, we also lose the intergenerational stories and ways of being that the individual inherited and sometimes perpetuates. I often wonder how much of my own bias as a white, highly educated, Romanian-but-living-in-the-UK therapist interprets client issues as potentially traumatic when, culturally, the events are part of their everyday and were metabolised as such.
Culturally, stories around pregnancy are coated in a glittery layer of “you-can-have-it-all-boss-bitch” independence, rather than the reality of motherhood. Most of the mothers I know and work with don’t have the support systems they need, but can’t even complain about it because the expectation is that they hold a job, raise a baby, and keep the house in check–most often without any help or financial support from the partner.
More importantly, we don’t question the status of children in culture and society–and the fact that even in the “most developed” cultures children are still not seen as people and are therefore crudely abused. Without proper rights and parental education, children end up carrying a lot of our shadow and are punished for it.
A physiological and psychological phenomenon
Although less the case nowadays, not seeing the physiological aspect of trauma is why most talk therapies fail to see recognise the dysregulated or, more commonly, totally dissociated client in the chair. Because of this, so-called desensitisation therapies that require the client to talk about their trauma in detail end up doing more harm than good; sometimes even blaming the client for not working hard enough to improve, rather than the therapist’s incompetence.
But there’s something fascinating about our current obsession with the body in therapy. I thought about this at length, including why I felt so enraptured by trauma theory when I first discovered it. I was, like many others, militant about trauma treatment needing to be somatic–until I successfully worked with people imaginally, psychodynamically, or through dreams.
Now I wonder how much of that was due to my own sense of tabu about the body, typical of my own inferior sensate function dressing it in a numinous glow. Quite interestingly, the more embodied I became (so the more conscious I became in my sensate function), the less I saw the need to always go to the body. The body, like the other functions, became just another way of working.
On the other hand, not seeing the psychological aspect of trauma can reduce it to “just shaking it off”, often in non-therapeutic environments or with confident coaches lacking a foundation in psychology.
But trauma usually comes with limiting beliefs about the self and the world, overwhelming emotions, attachment issues, plus a ton of grief that needs to be unpacked. The cycle is not complete until the trauma is integrated and merely shaking won’t do much for you. The psychological perspective also makes room for post-traumatic growth: learning new skills, moving forward in life, cultivating more authentic relationships.
And then we come to the spiritual and philosophical aspects of trauma–which not only are rarely taken into account, but are absolutely crucial.
Here’s a question: if you didn’t know about trauma, how would you feel about yourself? Or, better yet, is trauma still there if there’s no one to label it as such?
This is not to deny the real impact of trauma–trauma exists in complete, life-altering ways that even lead to disease. But at some point it’s important to also reflect on the difference between suffering and trauma. What’s part of the “normal” suffering that comes with being human and what’s actually traumatic?
As humans, we’ve always attempted to understand our condition and the role suffering and evil play in it. While religions and philosophers have done this for us for most of history, I think it’s time that we all think deeper about the stories we tell about our suffering. What does it mean when I think of myself as traumatised? Why did my trauma happen? And is there any purpose to it?
Let’s take two religions. Buddhism, for example, is entirely focused on the nature of suffering and how to overcome it through disciplined practice. Thus, suffering becomes the path towards liberation and non-duality; it’s something to turn towards and make conscious; and it’s inescapable. On the other hand, Christianity divorced good from evil and described suffering as a consequence of sin. The story became one about punishment, fear of making the wrong choice, and sometimes having our faith tested by the almighty father, who ultimately decides our fate.
One story breeds resilience; the other breeds fear and helplessness. What do our current stories of trauma do for us?
Without this somewhat existentialist reflection, we may end up thinking, like I used to, that the world we live in is traumatising, that our parents traumatised us, and that everyone we know is just made up of trauma. And while that could be true, it fails to ask why.
Thinking about trauma transpersonally doesn’t offer an answer, but gives us some helpful perspectives.
For example, we may consider that we’re a soul or spirit incarnated as human. If trauma is a part of life (as we see in our fellow animals), and life is about us finding wholeness and our own myth, then what purpose does my trauma serve? Without bypassing the pain that I suffered, can I see what it taught me? What is asked of me in this world?
Thinking archetypally, we might understand that we came into this world with a pre-existing expectation of mother and father. In other words, it’s not so much about what they did, but what we expected them to do–an archetypally imprinted bias that made us pay more notice to a certain kind of behaviour than others.
This explains partially why siblings frequently have very different experiences of their parents; why one is traumatised and one isn’t. It certainly explains how, with inner work, our relationship to our parents tends to change without them necessarily changing themselves. Somehow, we begin to see the intention behind some of their actions, rather than the meaning we initially ascribed to them. It proves that the meaning came from us, not the action itself–and suddenly, they become human, rather than an archetype.
From this perspective, trauma treatment isn’t about healing. Psychotherapy isn’t about healing–but wholeness. What if trauma didn’t take away from the wholeness, but is part of it?
And although I’m only choosing another story, I think Jung’s idea of integration and outgrowing our suffering and trauma is the best we can hope for. When working transpersonally, the burden of “healing” the client becomes the critical and sacred task of listening to what their unconscious demands of them.
Not everything needs to be healed–or, at least not when we want to.
And perhaps our suffering can teach us something about ourselves.
Thank you for reading this essay. There was a lot I wanted to get across, and some things didn’t even make this essay, so I appreciate your patience following my thought process.
I would love to hear from you in the comments below–and if this essay resonated with you, please share it.