In my private practice, a prevalent question exists: what exactly is emotional trauma? I will often hear people referring to their painful patterns as “trauma”, or their pain as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, I can’t actually sense that specific signature in their system.
And sometimes, the reverse happens; someone will tell me about their “problem” as if it’s just a silly challenge they’re having a hard time navigating, but I can sense it is active trauma or even PTSD. I can see the signatures of something much more acute than what they are describing.
I think that it helps to have it spelled out very clearly. So here are some basics to consider.
First, let’s explore the different piain patterns thatcan so deeply affect a person and keep them from thriving.
This is a conditioning or toxic pattern. It is felt as a dark, painful pattern that triggers fear.
That fear comes in the shape of control, worry, doubt, confusion, panic, etc.
Example: when your partner/kid doesn’t communicate to you about what time he/she will be home, and you start to feel abandoned and start to get pissed off, or even threatened that he/she won’t come home or is in danger, even though you know this is ridiculous and not real. That is what we might call a challenging pattern that needs healing. This would be a dysfunctional pattern.
Trauma is like adding an additional electrical charge around the dysfunction.
Example: When your partner or kid doesn’t communicate, you go into a panic, and your body freezes. Suddenly, you can’t remember, your mind goes blank. As though there is ice inside you, and you very suddenly disconnect from your environment. Fear is present, obviously lots of fear, but even more so the feeling of being lost. Perhaps lost somewhere inside of yourself.
PTSD is an electric fence connected to a series of electric fences, and once one goes off the rest go into alarm, which makes the first go off again. Like dogs barking in a nightime suburb: one begins howling at a sound or a raccoon or something, and the others soon follow. Inevitably, this inspires the first to start in again even though the raccoon has passed. And it goes on and on and on. If you can imagine, PTSD feels similar inside of you.
PTSD in Detail
I happen to be so familiar with this particular form of pain that I feel like I could document every single sensation. However, that is perhaps more detail than you need, instead I want to map a number of different patterns to PTSD.
For instance, a soldier returning from war has a signature slightly different to a child who has been in those same wars. But both of those are different again from the pattern of PTSD of a child who has been methodically and ritualistically tortured. That again differs to an adult who lived in an internment camp, etc. (I work with a lot of survivors!)
But the general signatures for all is a metallic or tin flavor in the mouth. The large amounts of adrenaline are behind this and are on chronic cycle in their bodies. Cyclically, they experience an immediate low or high level of dissociation.
Dissociation in PTSD
This often makes those feels like becoming a very small child—not acting like one, but actually becoming one. Seeing through the eyes of a three year old, at a world that is only filtered by a three-year-old’s understanding. You feel your body as though you were three years old again. Or the dissociation takes the form of a profoundly clear sense that you are no longer the body— feeling like you are not here. Instead, you are somewhere above or below yourself, or somewhere deeply hidden in the body, and something else is animating my body.
Sometimes, you become an entirely different personality, or just a mystery is running the ship. Or you experience a full blackout. That is to say, nothing peculiar crosses the threshold into your awareness until a few hours to days later. You come back to reality and notice you don’t recall anything from the last few days. (Or in my case, aren’t sure what town you are in, or what happened to your car!) And when you track back, you recognize missing hours or days. Occassionally, profound panic unfolds, or you just feel empty.
And coming back into the ground of being this person can take anywhere from three hours to three days. Always once they are in a safe environment. (In my book, Freedom vs Fear, I talk in more detail about this system and how innocent and perfect this behavior is. And also how intelligent a system PTSD really is. I also share about how to navigate the time it takes to return.)
The challenges in recovering from emotional trauma
With both traumatic signatures and PTSD signatures, you will have these four ongoing challenges:
1) Very reactive to urgency.
If you have some event or situation that is “urgent”, a person with trauma will go suddenly into an “overdrive” and over-compensate. They singly focus on the appeal. I put a lot of importance on this because we need to understand this about ourselves. Our friends and family can innocently come to us with “life emergencies”—like a cat is sick, or a boyfriend didn’t call. If we don’t understand that we will respond as if it’s an actual life and death emergency. Our body systems slow down and adrenaline takes over. Trauma leaves our body in an overactive state and we can’t organically calm ourselves and have clear discernment.
Therefore, we need to know how to define an emergency for ourselves, and how to mostly become non-responsive to emergency-like situations. We need to train ourselves to turn away and let other people bring in solutions. Or at least pause for a good amount of time to clarify what is real before it costs your system a lot metabolically.
2) A seemingly very real understanding that life is pain, and pain is life.
This feels like a chronic running sensation and a background thought expressing; “If I’m not in pain, something must be wrong.” or “If this isn’t painful, its not something I can trust”. Which, sadly, makes relationships very dramatic and toxic.
This is so, so common for traumatized individuals, especially those who are yet ready to learn the route out of emotional trauma. These people experience a deep groove of pain making it almost too hard to relax and lean on something more effortless, or find ease. The real hardship is your perception that ease is just not “real” or trustworthy, and it feels too rudderless, like it is not going to last.
3) Overwhelmed into defeat with very small triggers.
By small triggers, I mean something like the oven door not closing all the way meaning the cake didn’t cook in time. Or you feel cold in the night, but you’d wake people to retrieve a blanket. I mean small.
Tragically, these very small life events create a feeling of being totally overwhelmed in a person with active trauma. Knowing this in advance is important, because knowing it is a trigger and not “true” can empower the person to creatively problem-solve. Pulling them right out of their overwhelmed state, they can turn to creative solutions instead.
4) Tons of buried rage.
Often surprising to the traumatized person is how intense and how vast their rage is. Usually deeply buried, the more available feelings being grief or depression. However, rage does exist. The hot anger explodes in the same way contents under immense pressure tend to explode. And those explosions are really mysterious, and painful for everyone. And then usually the traumatized are shamed for exploding.
But trauma is created by actions that were committed in total offense to your personhood—basically, a violence that denied your rights as a person. And so, intelligently, there is a lot of anger around that. Assuming we all understand that anger is the expression of a boundary, specifically when a boundary has been crossed and over-stepped. And repressed anger pressurizes, and eventually explodes, becoming misconstrued as something terribly misunderstood and possibly harmful.
And sadly, the traumatized do tend to hide their rage so often it explodes unconsciously. Someone with trauma is usually mortified when they become conscious and then recall that big exploding rage out. The explosion is unconscious, and can’t be helped. And then, well, we all the know the public and family shaming and blaming and accusation that gets attributed to exploding rage. And we all know how that just adds to more buried rage, eventually becoming a huge lethal load.
I find it worth repeating that once traumatized people get in touch with it, are often shocked with the huge amount of rage in their systems. But rage and trauma go hand in hand. Brother/sister. Necessary allies.
So, hopefully this article gives you some sense of clarity around emotional trauma and what your system is generally dealing with. Perhaps clarifies your parents for you, or your partner, or your kid. And maybe the door is open for you to engage in an even more honest dialogue.
Taking the first steps to heal your emtional pain is extremely brave. If you need tools to overcome emotional trauma, I’ve created a clear pathway out.
All my love and blessings,