The world knows trauma. We see it, read about it, and try to avoid it every day, but we experience it, often unexpectedly. How does it leave us? It depends. How we leave trauma and how it leaves us, depends on the state we are in as we meet it, and the support we access afterwards. Some people say, “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” but not always. If we are lucky or prepared, we can release trauma and heal, gathering and transforming our lives and memories into meaning and purpose.
Traumatic feelings consolidate like thunderclouds and take on physical density, rallying our immune system, hormones, digestion, and nerves. Like impending storms, we build pressure. We fight, flee or freeze, we cry, laugh, and sigh, to recover. I remember the first time a friend died. We were young. He was out on a run when his heart stopped. I heard the news in complete disbelief, so much so that I thought it was a joke and said to my brother with a snicker, “you’re kidding, right?”
Trauma can be minor and fleeting or so intense that it takes us to no man's land, a place where no body would want to linger or dwell. When we experience the latter, our memories may go blank or our minds craftily shield us from the danger — by disassociating from it or compartmentalizing the pain — as unbearable memories can be, at least temporarily, placed off limits. But history revisits us, often in unpredictable ways. Memories, conscious or otherwise, come back through a doorway called our senses — through the smell of something cooking, a chill in the air, or a familiar image. How do we feel when our senses jar memories? It depends.
If we can’t find meaning or courage in tragedies or purpose in loss, we risk further injury. If there is no outlet for tears or laughter, no safe place to heal or turn for reassurance, if our wounds, fears, sadness, or anger stagnate, they consolidate in our bodies (or transfer to someone else — as an unsuspecting hiker is struck by our lightening). Our fleshy bodies and minds have a finite capacity to accommodate trauma, and so without a safe place to release or dissipate, these temporary vessels spill over, exploding or imploding, manifesting as physical or mental ailments.
In medical school I had access to hundreds of medical records from people who had experienced trauma in their lives, but had lacked resources. My thesis was a statistical analysis of the aftermath of trauma. On average, the number of doctor visits (for all types of ailments, from back pain, to colds, to headaches and heart problems) were significantly higher for patients who experienced (or witnessed) trauma, than those who had not, even when the trauma was in the distant past.
Trauma is inevitable. How we feel and heal, survive or become “stronger,” depends on our ability to reconcile with the densities in our bodies and lives, through our senses, even long after the storm has passed. Two books, The Body Keeps the Score, by Van der Kolk, MD and In an Unspoken Voice, by Peter Levine, PhD are choice books to start to understand this phenomenon and to begin to think differently about how we address human suffering (without diagnostic labels and drugs).