Our memories are typically integrated into the overarching story of our lives, providing a frame of reference for the new experience within the context of our whole story. However, an individual going through trauma loses this frame of reference. When the body system becomes inundated with the overwhelming sensory data coming in, the integrated functioning of the system begins to break down. The frontal lobe, the part of the brain involved in reason and cognition, shuts down. When cognitive processing shuts down, the individual is no longer able to put feelings into words, making it difficult for them to make sense of the traumatic experience. They lose their sense of location and time. The raw data is no longer processed properly, so their memory of the traumatic event cannot be stored in their long-term memory as other memories are. Instead, the traumatic experience is stored in a different part of the brain as flashes of fragmented sensory and emotional traces.
As a result, traumatic memories are not stored as logical, coherent narratives and are not integrated into the individual’s story. The individual has no ability to say, “that was then, this is now." Because of this process, individuals experience the trauma as a present, here-and-now reality, even if the trauma happened many years ago.
The Feedback Loop
When we go through trauma, it often seems the circumstance produces feelings in us, and the feelings create a belief that feels true because it matches our feelings. What actually happens is when we go through the circumstance we develop a perception of the experience which produces a belief, that belief creates our feelings, and those feelings in turn circle back to reinforce our belief interpretation of the experience. Of course, the belief then feels true, because the belief itself created the feelings. This “feedback loop” is why Scripture tells us to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5) instead of telling us to control our feelings.
Our interpretation can come from an outside influence (for example, a parent yells, “Why do you make me do this” as they are beating a child, and the child perceives the beating as their fault, then believes they deserve to be mistreated), or it can be our own perception (for example, a child in an alcoholic home perceives the environment as insecure and unsafe, then believes they can never trust and bad things will always happen). But the bottom line is, our wounding does not come from the painful experience. Wounding comes from the beliefs we develop as a result of the painful experience. We need Christ to bring truth to interrupt the “feedback loop” and change our beliefs with truth.
Three Types of Trauma
Trauma can occur in many forms; however, three main types of trauma are recognized, with each one bearing different consequences. The first type of trauma is a dramatic event or experience which shocks the system but at some point comes to an end. The second type is an ongoing, continually distressing series of events or experiences from which there is no foreseeable relief. The third type of trauma is vicarious or secondary trauma, which occurs from being close to or in relationship with someone who is going through or has gone through trauma.
The first type of trauma is like a ball-peen hammer against a sheet of glass, the glass representing the internal structure of the personality. Depending on a variety of factors (the thickness of the glass, the weight of the hammer, the force of the swing, the number of previous hits), the glass can be left with a single ding, or spider-web cracks; larger fragmenting cracks, with broken out pieces; or, completely shattered in pieces on the ground, with nothing left in the frame but a huge hole.
The second type of trauma is more like waves against the sand and rocks on the shore. At first, you don’t see much happening, but the constant flow of water and recurrent crashing of the waves undermines the foundation of the land. It erodes the sand, wears down the resistance, and cuts into the rock. The constant pressure begins to leave deep gullies where the flow of water begins to collect, and soon the gulley turns into a canyon. Eventually, the sand is washed away, the dune collapses, and the foundation is swept away in the waves.
Secondary trauma is like standing some distance from the center of a bomb blast but still experiencing a shock wave after the blast occurs. The immediate impact of the trauma itself is not experienced, but the aftereffects and consequences of the trauma are, and it can impact the individual and drain life energy in a way similar to experiencing the trauma. Vicarious or secondary trauma can impact loved ones living in the home with the traumatized person, close friends and extended family, and professionals working with the trauma survivor in a caregiver role.
For all three forms of trauma, certain consequences and responses are consistently present. The next post will go over what causes our responses to trauma.
The Dark Corridor
Let's talk about the inner experience of someone who has gone through trauma. Imagine the individual’s body as a home. For most people, life is lived in the main areas, with occasional visits to private spaces for reflection and self-awareness, but all the areas of the home are connected and integrated. The individual is able to move freely and easily from space to space, without losing their connection to the rest of the home.
However, the traumatized individual’s inner “home” is no longer safe or secure. Their brain constructs a long, dark corridor, a passageway into a closed-off, isolated room from which the individual can observe life, but is not connected to it. Life goes on in the main part of the house while the individual watches from a “safe” and unreachable distance. A hologram of themselves may be projected into the main area to give others the impression that they are present and participating, but the individual is emotionally shut down and unavailable. They can no longer access or move freely through the rest of their home.
Most people, when they hear the word "trauma" assume the term refers to someone else, someone who has experienced severe abuse or violence or who has lived through a natural disaster. However, almost everyone has experienced some type of trauma in their lives. So what is trauma? Trauma is an emotional response to a severely distressing event or series of events that overwhelms an individual’s ability and capacity to cope. Anything that interrupts the integration of the emotions involved in the experience would be considered traumatic. Have you ever been through an experience where you emotionally shut down? Have you felt what it is like to be in a temporary state of shock, where you can't seem to organize your thoughts or make sense of what you are feeling? Have you ever lost someone you loved? Then you will gain insight into your experience here! Check in each week on Thursdays for new insights into trauma, grief, and loss.
Dr. Donna E. Lane is a Christian Counselor who specializes in trauma, grief, and loss, along with the depression and anxiety often resulting from these experiences. She has been a counselor since 1979, and has owned her practice since 1993. She is co-author of the internationally-acclaimed trauma treatment resource, Trauma Narrative Treatment, and the accompanying story, Gold Stone. She is also the co-author of Strength in Adversity, a Biblical study on walking through difficulty with Christ.