Trading Shame for Science
Understanding the basic biological script that begins when a traumatic event happens and continues when a traumatic event is remembered is critical for healing. It is much harder to feel toxic shame for something that is rooted in your biology. If you got a migraine in the middle of a date, you might feel really irritated, inconvenienced, and embarrassed even. You might wonder if showing your bodily vulnerability too early will make your date decide you are too high maintenance to go out with again. None of this is pleasant, but it’s also not soul crushing. At some point, even amidst all the worry, you would come to understand that migraines are simply a part of your neurobiology.
The way that we absorb and respond to overwhelming traumatic events is also a part of our neurobiology—not a flaw in it. The fact that we can respond to the overwhelm of traumatic events in the way that we do is miraculous, lifesaving, and proof of strength and adaptability, not a sign of weakness.
Please remember this. It’s important. The trauma response is rooted in strength, not weakness.
The trauma response keeps us alive. Without it we would not exist. It is rooted in strength and the human drive to survive. So when we shame ourselves and others for suffering because of it, we are shaming ourselves for being human. Trauma has become entangled with shame, and shame, being both metastatic and highly contagious, must be avoided at all costs. So instead of teaching people how to cope with traumatic experiences, we pretend that it is possible to avoid them or to sail through them unscathed. We do not teach coping strategies because we view mental health as the norm and mental illness as the aberration—as if our response to a traumatic experience is a kind of moral failing. That shame only makes it that much harder to address the aftereffects of the trauma response, which admittedly can be challenging. We are getting in our own way, over and over and over again.
If we can digest just a little of the neurobiology of our trauma response, we can combat some of this shame, as individuals and as a society. We can counter the great societal lie that says experiencing a trauma response long after an overwhelming event is a sign of weakness, failure, or dysfunction. This is imperative because our broken understanding of trauma isn’t just bad science; it is preventing people from healing.
The Truth about Triggers
The trauma response is never wrong, but it is really frustrating sometimes. This is because it carries inside of it a tension that cannot be resolved—a diabolical duality. David Morris, a veteran and war correspondent, captures this perfectly when he writes, “Trauma is the glimpse of truth that tells us a lie: the lie that love is impossible, that peace is an illusion.”
Trauma is the glimpse of truth that tells us a lie. The truth is, we are all terminally vulnerable. Our existence and all the things we hold dear within it are haunted by this vulnerability. Everything is precarious. We spend most of our lives holding this truth at bay. We keep busy and act as if it were not true. Traumatic events rupture our lives and reveal this terrible truth with a vividness that cannot be ignored. And yet this moment of rupture is not the whole story. Trauma does not restrict itself to a moment. It is more powerful than that. It spills through portals into the present, reinforcing the lie that trauma tells us: That terror is the foundation of everything. That terror is the only thing that exists. That once we have seen this terror, we must never lose our focus on it. That this kind of hypervigilance is the only way to live.
When Loss Is Traumatic
Loss is potentially traumatic, but we sometimes don’t label it as such. Because losses are inevitable, because we will all face many of them—some expected, some shocking—we are inclined to label them as “not traumatic.” Or we distinguish between those types of losses that might be traumatic and those that simply cannot be.
But remember what we are learning (and unlearning) about traumas: traumatic experience should not be defined in terms of what happened, but in terms of the reaction the experience causes. When an experience overwhelms the nervous system to the point that our emergency trauma response kicks into gear and switches off our recording and filing processes, it is potentially traumatic. When we can’t calm and reset our systems, and we can’t find someone to help us find the off switch for the trauma response, that experience becomes lastingly traumatic. So just because loss is something we all face does not mean that a loss can’t be traumatic. Further, which losses will be traumatic and which will not be is not something we can predict. For example, an expected loss after someone has had a long life and a prolonged illness can be traumatic if you’ve tied your identity to the role of caretaker for that person and don’t have a good support system in your grief.
In The Work of Mourning, Jacques Derrida writes, “To have a friend, to look at him, to follow him with your eyes, to admire him in friendship, is to know in a more intense way, already injured, always insistent, and more and more unforgettable, that one of the two of you will inevitably see the other die.”
All of our relationships are marked with inevitable loss. It looms large on the horizon, an ever-present specter. And yet it is also already here. At the very moment we connect, we already begin slipping away. Our relationships are comprised of—indeed, constituted by—becoming entangled and then slipping away. What it means to be human is to be transient and to be surrounded by transience. We desire and we come undone. We grasp and then we lose. We become entangled and then we slip away. We learn the lesson and then we make the mistake all over again.
Finding Our Way Home: A New Understanding of Trauma
Traumatic experience is not simply an injury that leaves a bruise. Traumatic experience pierces the spirit. Like a thorn from a rose, something essential tears off from the experience and lodges itself, painfully, in the psyche, the soul.
Just like a thorn in the skin, this psychic thorn needs to be drawn out, extracted. And the wound needs to be tended to. If this extraction and tending doesn’t happen, the trauma will simply remain present. It may even encyst, fester, become infected, and threaten to take over the entire system, regardless of how small it was when it first pierced your spirit.
The body responds to a thorn or a splinter by setting off an inflammatory reaction. We might not notice the splinter at first, but we will notice the inflammation, the throbbing, the skin warm to the touch, the oozing infection. Just because these symptoms are not pleasant does not mean that they are unwarranted or a sign of our brokenness. They are the opposite. The body initiates this reaction to survive. It does so because it is strong. In a similar way, the body begins a sophisticated response to thorns of the spirit. It does so in order to survive. It does so because it is strong. If we don’t feel ashamed and weak when our body responds to protect us from physical thorns, then why should we feel ashamed and weak when it mounts its own response to spirit thorns?
A great societal lie claims that our response to traumatic experiences must be quick, neat, and effortless, and if it’s not, we should be ashamed. This lie is harmful in many ways, but especially because too often it keeps us from reaching out to others for help. On top of that, our collective misunderstanding of the trauma response, coupled with an outdated clinical definition of trauma, means that when we do reach out, the people we turn to are often ill equipped to help or support us. Instead, their “help” is unhelpful at best and damaging at worst, reinforcing the lie that our response to trauma is a sign of our shame, our weakness, our failure.
The truth is that when we start the healing process, we are committing to a lifelong path. Along this path are moments of panic, moments of integration, moments where old memories unexpectedly pop up unbidden. Healing involves treating the memory, treating the nervous system, and treating the way we relate. One of the most easily accessible and beautiful ways that we heal is in therapeutic relationships with people who can help us bear what is or has become unbearable.