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  • Writer's pictureRae Gateley, LCSW

Everybody's Talking About Trauma

There's been an upsurge in our awareness of emotional trauma in recent years. Have you noticed? Out of curiosity, I used the Google Ngram tool to track the use of the word "trauma" in printed material over the past 200 years, and here is the result:

The graph can't show what the word meant to those who used it or what they said about it, but it does lend some support to the notion that everybody's talking about trauma. Returning to Google, I plugged in "trauma" and searched current news stories. Google reports "about 90,900,000 results," beginning with:

  • 7 Red Flags You're Experiencing Trauma From the COVID-19 Pandemic

  • How WandaVision Gets Wanda's Story of Grief and Trauma Right

  • WHO Says Pandemic Has Caused More "Mass Trauma" Than WWII

  • This Week's News Has Put Sexual Assault Survivors at Risk of "Secondary Trauma"

  • Britney Spears and the Trauma of Being Young, Female and Famous in the 90s

Each of these news stories approach the trauma concept in a different way. In today's world, through the work of trauma survivors, researchers, doctors, mental health professionals, educators, and others, we recognize that there are many ways to view trauma. Unfortunately, increased awareness can contribute to confusion as we stretch the term trauma to cover expanding concepts and new discoveries. In this post, I'll try to briefly introduce what trauma means in the therapy setting.

From a therapist's perspective, trauma refers to the physical process within the brain and body in response to an overwhelming threat. When in danger, our nervous system kicks into emergency survival mode. An important aspect of this survival response is

shutdown of the relatively slow "thinking" brain (cortex) and takeover by the much faster midbrain (limbic system). This takeover enables us to respond instantly, but it also creates a disconnect between the different parts of our brain which usually function together. When the danger has passed, we may remain out-of-sync with ourselves and the world around us, living as if the crisis is ongoing. The aim of therapy is re-integrate brain and body functioning, enabling us to distinguish between safety and danger, feel in control of self, able to experience emotions without being overwhelmed, and able to enjoy connecting with others.

“Trauma is hell on earth. Trauma resolved is a gift from the gods.”

Peter A. Levine

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