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a basic understanding of trauma

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

It seems like trauma is trending lately– we hear more about it in mainstream news, and it feels as though there’s much less stigma around mental health issues. Many people I know are comfortable talking about their own therapy, their past (and present) trauma, and many yoga teachers, personal trainers and movement coaches are learning how to make their work more trauma-informed. But what does that mean?

Let’s start with a simple working definition of trauma. It’s commonly said that trauma is caused by anything that is “too fast, too much, or too soon for our nervous system to handle.” Because each individual is different, what causes trauma for one person might not result in trauma for another.

The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) isn’t much help here– it lists only Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) under trauma-related “disorders” (I object to the use of the word “disorder”– what happens when our systems become overwhelmed by trauma is a completely natural response to a situation that we are unable to handle). Rather than thinking of trauma as something that can only happen after one big event (as in PTSD), we should recognize that trauma includes a broad spectrum of possibilities. Understanding that it includes anything that is overwhelming (too fast, too much, too soon)– then we can see that trauma can affect us all.

Almost all of us have been exposed to a traumatic event at some point in our lives. Remember that, just like non-human animals, each of us is equipped to be able to handle stressful events. However, there are some things that will always be too much– a situation that can’t be escaped, for example. When our defense systems are overwhelmed, we become “stuck” in a stress response.

an image showing a cartoon of a stressed person. It says "What causes trauma? Anything that is too fast, too much, or too soon for our nervous systems to handle."

As you can see from the graphic above, trauma isn't necessarily occur in one event, but can be an ongoing, systemic effect, as in the case of C-PTSD (Complex-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Every one of us has our own unique trauma response. This might look like hyper-vigilance– always needing to be on-guard, “ready” for danger. It could present as heightened emotional reactivity. In other cases, trauma looks like depression, sluggishness, or an inability to move.

Our bodies, stuck in a trauma response, do not function optimally. Each of the body’s systems can be affected, resulting in countless variations of illness. The brain, too, is impacted, resulting in different behavioral patterns that can be confusing for others to understand. It’s impossible to overstate the effects of traumatic stress on the body, especially in developing children. The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study) shows how prevalent and impactful this can be.

image via The Hanna Institute,

Of course, we don’t get a sign to wear that explains our trauma history, or ongoing state of trauma, to other humans. A lot of the time, we’re not even aware that we’re operating through a trauma response. Our bodies and brains adapt. What starts out as adaptive behavior becomes a personality, and people in our lives adapt to that. And so we move around the world, bumping into other folks and their trauma with our own trauma and wondering why everyone doesn’t act the way we think they should.

So what does it mean, then, to be trauma-informed? A trauma-informed view of dealing with other humans takes into account the unseen challenges that individual may be facing. It recognizes that each of us has overcome countless obstacles simply to be alive right now. It can be more flexible in its understanding of what is “normal,” and accepts the other with an unconditional positive regard. In my next article, we’ll take a look at what that might mean with regard to teaching yoga or movement. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

If you believe that you have experienced (or are experiencing) unresolved trauma, please look for a qualified mental health expert for assistance. The purpose of this article is to give a broader understanding of what trauma might be, and to start to consider the implications of that more inclusive definition.

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