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The Mystery of Trauma - What is Trauma?




Excerpted from
Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences
By Peter A. Levine Ph.D.

As I was describing my work to a businessman recently, he exclaimed, "Trauma must have been what was wrong with my daughter when she had those screaming fits in her sleep. The psychologist I took her to told me they were 'just nightmares.' I knew they weren't just nightmares." He was right. His daughter had been severely frightened by a routine emergency room procedure and for weeks afterward would scream and cry in her sleep, her body almost completely rigid. The girl's concerned parents were unable to wake her. The odds are very high that she was having a traumatic reaction to her hospital stay.

Many people, like this businessman, have at some point in their lives experienced something inexplicable, or observed something similar in a person close to them. While not all of these unexplained happenings are symptoms of trauma, many are. The "helping" professions tend to describe trauma in terms of the event that caused it, instead of defining it in its own terms. Since we don't have a way to accurately define trauma, it can be difficult to recognize.

The official definition that psychologists and psychiatrists use to diagnose trauma is that it is caused by a stressful occurrence "that is outside the range of usual human experience, and that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone." This definition encompasses the following unusual experiences: "serious threat to one's life or physical integrity; serious threat or harm to one's children, spouse, or other close relatives or friends; sudden destruction of one's home or community; seeing another person who is or has recently been seriously injured or killed as the result of an accident or physical violence."

This description is somewhat useful as a starting point, but it is also vague and misleading. Who can say what is "outside the range of usual human experience", or "markedly distressing to almost anyone"? The events mentioned in the definition are helpful qualifiers, but there are many other potentially traumatizing events that fall into gray areas. Accidents, falls, illnesses, and surgeries that the body unconsciously perceives as threatening are often not consciously regarded as outside the range of usual human experience. However, they are often traumatizing. In addition, rapes, drive-by shootings, and other tragedies occur frequently in many communities. Though they may be considered inside the range of usual experience, rapes and shootings will always be traumatic.

The healing of trauma depends upon the recognition of its symptoms. Because traumatic symptoms are largely the result of primitive responses, they are often difficult to recognize. People don't need a definition of trauma; we need an experiential sense of how it feels. A client of mine described the following experience:

My five-year-old son and I were playing ball in the park when he threw the ball a long distance away from me. While I was retrieving the ball, he ran into a busy street to get another ball he had spotted. As I reached to pick up the ball we had been playing with, I heard the tires of a car screech long and loud. I knew instantly that Joey had been hit by the car. My heart seemed to fall into the pit of my stomach. All the blood in my body seemed to stop circulating and fell down to my feet. Feeling pale as a ghost, I started running toward the crowd gathering in the street. My legs were as heavy as lead. Joey was nowhere in sight, yet with the certainty that he had been involved in the accident, my heart tightened and constricted, then expanded to fill my chest with dread. I pushed through the crowd and collapsed on top of Joey's still body. The car had dragged his body several feet before it stopped. His body was scratched and bloody, his clothes were tom, and he was so still. Feeling panic-stricken and helpless, I frantically tried to piece him back together. I tried to wipe away the blood, but only succeeded in spreading it. I tried to pat his tom clothes back into place. I kept thinking, "No, this isn't happening. Breathe, Joey, breathe." As though my life force could infuse life into his still body, I kept collapsing on top of him, pressing my heart against his. A numbness began to creep over me as I felt myself pulling away from the scene. I was just going through the motions now. I couldn't feel anymore.

People who have experienced trauma of this magnitude really know what it is, and their responses to it are basic and primitive. With this unfortunate woman the symptoms were brutally clear and compelling. For many of us, however, the symptoms are more subtle. We can learn to identify a traumatic experience by exploring our own reactions. It has a feel that is unmistakable once it is identified. Let's look at an event that is clearly outside the range of ordinary experience.



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