Understanding Trauma Can Make Your Life Better

At the Institute for the Prevention and Treatment of Mascupathy, and in our clinical practices, we work to help men identify and grow the positive aspects of their masculinity and, at the same time, alleviate the debilitating and destructive parts of conventional manhood. We often find that childhood or adult traumas have exacerbated our clients’ issues, making them more inclined to externalize their problems on to others and to suffer themselves.

I, therefore, include trauma work with many clients, and I wrote this piece, especially for men, to explain the role of trauma in their lives and how they can heal themselves from the traumatic memories that inhibit their personal growth. I have taken the somewhat unusual step of including the story of my own traumatization along with some observations about the relief I felt when I found an explanation for some of my wayward behaviors. I also want to share how understanding my trauma helped me create a better life and find more compassion for myself. The knowledge that I had been traumatized did not excuse my actions, but it did help me to better cope with difficult situations and to find compassion for myself.

Ruth’s story.

My mother, Ruth Youmans, was born in 1919. She was 10 years old when the Great Depression struck. Her father, Adonjoniah, better known as AJ, was a successful businessman, and they had a lovely home in Dearborn, Michigan. During the 1920s, AJ bought up a lot of real estate in their hometown, which he lost in the Depression. My mother and her brothers still had a decent place to live and enough food, but my mother’s life had changed forever.

Over the years, things got better, and my mother felt safer in cozy Dearborn. She went to Michigan State and became an elementary school teacher. Then things— once again beyond her control—changed her life. In 1941, the United States entered World War II. Charles, her prized brother and hero of the family, went off to war, and in 1944, was killed in action flying over Europe. A few short months later, her father, a man in seemingly perfectly good health, died of a heart attack.

During these years, my mother married David Donaldson, and I was born in 1945. A couple years later, my father graduated from the University of Michigan medical school, and our family moved 800 miles to Boston, Massachusetts for his internship as a doctor. We didn’t have much money at the time, and we lived in the lower flat of an apartment building in a congested and not very nice neighborhood in downtown Boston. In the middle of the night, we could hear Mrs. Vangelis, in the upper flat, rage at her daughter when she came home from an evening of carousing. My dad was seldom around due to the rigors of a medical internship, and when he was home, I’m guessing that he was not very sympathetic to my mother’s life. My mom, my one-year-old sister, and I, a highly vulnerable child, essentially lived alone in what my mom must have found to be an alien, scary place. Though not as seriously as some other people, it was a time that nevertheless traumatized me for life.

Defining trauma.

Here are a few basics about trauma. Bessel van der Kolk, in his groundbreaking book, The Body Keeps The Score, defines trauma as an experience or series of experiences which alone or together overwhelm one’s usual coping mechanisms, and leave a person distressed, and often never quite the same. He also points out trauma occurs as a result of many kinds of life-changing difficult circumstances: watching a fellow soldier killed in war, injury in a car accident, physical or sexual assault, emotional or physical neglect. Van der Kolk explains what we all know: that we relive our trauma in present situations which often only mildly resemble the original traumatic situation. So, a present day situation which is not actually threatening—such as a firecracker going off—can arouse terror in a soldier who’s seen his buddy killed by an IED.

Most people suffer from some trauma—it’s simply unavoidable. The trauma response of hyperarousal is an inherent and useful part of the body’s mechanisms which increases vigilance and focus in a time of change, difficulty, or threat. When we feel traumatized, we are not alone, not the only one to have such feelings. Virtually all of us have suffered losses, hurt, or abuse in one way or another. Some of us may have had much more serious traumatic experiences than others, but we are all still on the same continuum with many other people.

Three changes in the brain.

Recent research using MRIs has shown conclusively that traumatic experiences produce actual physical changes in the brain.

  • First, trauma erodes the threat perception system. A person who has had more serious trauma is more likely to see danger, whereas a person who has less trauma will see a manageable situation. If we have had more serious trauma, the primitive part of our brain is more likely to dominate, and we are likely to live a more fear-driven life than some other people.
  • Second, the part of our brain that distinguishes between what’s relevant now and what we can dismiss gets messed up. This can make it more difficult to focus on the present and to engage in what’s going on at this moment.
  • Third, the self-sensing system gets blunted. When we are in a state of anxiety or fear, we are more likely to be irritable, hostile or detached, and to have rumination or racing thoughts. Our body feels bad and so we want to do something to cope with it to feel better. Unfortunately, our choices of coping mechanisms are frequently not healthy: substance dependence, workaholism, sexual addiction, extreme sports.

What I learned from my mother’s story.

I had been reading van der Kolk’s book with the purpose of being better able to help my clients who struggle with trauma. However, my readings gave me insights into myself and have helped me to better understand the story of my mom’s childhood and adult experiences which impacted me as a child.

First, my mother was herself traumatized, certainly not to the degree that some people are, but traumatized nonetheless. As I said earlier, over the course of her life, she saw her family fortune disappear in the Depression, her brother and father die in the space of six months and, just a short time later, she herself moved from home and friends to live in an unfamiliar and scary environment. Second, van der Kolk has established that it doesn’t take physical or sexual abuse or neglect to traumatize a child. The inability of a parental figure to attach, in other words, to provide deep and stable nurturing can result in a child not feeling loved and coming to believe that the world is not a safe place.

Things started to make sense. All of a sudden, these insights gave me an explanation for my seemingly inexplicable behavior. I began to understand some of the crazy and harmful things I did. I realized that my problems—anxiety, over-reactivity, difficulty in maintaining long-term relationships, and excessive use of alcohol as a young man—were not, as van der Kolk puts it, “the result of moral failings or signs of lack of willpower or bad character, they were the result of actual changes in the brain due to trauma.” Maybe I didn’t suffer the deep traumatization of children who have been sexually abused by a stepfather, or neglected by cocaine-addicted mothers, or beat up by rageful fathers, but I was traumatized nonetheless.

Almost immediately, I also really realized that if I could understand my trauma, I could have control over it, and therefore better manage my own behavior. If I recognized that I was having what I call a trauma attack, I’d be less likely to act out, to overreact, and more able to differentiate between small problems and big ones. If I understood my trauma, I wouldn’t denigrate myself for losing a set of keys or feel so shamed for something I said that inadvertently hurt a friend. And I’d be more likely to be able to handle the failure of a relationship or the death of a friend. In a word, I would be more resilient.

How understanding your trauma can help you.

1. We realize there’s logic to our behavior. Like me, when you recognize and accept that you’ve been traumatized, it can help you free yourself of confusion, guilt, and shame. In fact, accepting that you have trauma, and understanding it, can be considered a gift—it explains why you have anxiety, depression, OCD. You may have had horrendous experiences which have contributed to your overreacting to various circumstances and having difficulty in relationships. You are not a bad person; you do not have inherent character defects.

I hope that you can tell yourself what I’ve told myself: “No wonder I get upset about certain things. These feelings are not just something that happens to me – getting upset or scared or paralyzed or angry at myself—there’s a reason for it. No wonder I sometimes get angry, or hermit, or get needy. I am no longer a painful mystery to myself.” I also know that while understanding my trauma explains my behavior, there’s a caveat: I don’t want to make my trauma into an excuse for that behavior.

2. We see our overreactions as trauma attacks. We all know what a panic attack is: a time, usually short, when we become overwhelmed with fear. Our thoughts and our hearts race. And many of us also know that we can calm ourselves down with soothing thoughts and deep breathing.

I believe that it can be helpful to look at some of our overreactions in life as trauma attacks. While trauma is, to a certain degree, continually present for some of us who feel anxious or depressed much of the time, it’s the times when our trauma spikes that are most problematic. When our partner engages in some small slight, and we feel grossly insulted. When plans get changed at the last minute, and we go into a rage. When we lose or break something, and it seems like the end of the world. In these cases, something in some way similar has happened in the past—a traumatic event from years ago—that colors a present event and, all of a sudden, we feel overwhelmed. Our brain naturally make connections between the present and the past. This replication—a trauma attack—is normal, but also something we can learn to manage.

It isn’t easy to recognize that it’s the trauma attack that’s heightening our emotional state rather than the present relatively mild situation itself. Trauma attacks come on fast and we are often so consumed by the present circumstance that it’s hard to see that what’s going on inside of us is a product of old pain.

But if we can handle a trauma attack in the same way we deal with a panic attack, if we can give ourselves solace by realizing this “spell” is an old, often unseen memory that’s affecting us, that there’s no real danger in this present situation, then we can tell ourselves that this too shall pass and soon we’ll be OK.

3. We use our power of self-observation. In addition to ameliorating our trauma by recognizing that strong feelings of trauma come and go, and that sometimes our present situation seems more serious than it really is because it replicates the past, we can use the power of self-observation to decrease its impact on us.

When we are having a trauma attack, we can step back from our upsetting feelings and observe ourselves having a trauma attack. When we do that, we cut the dark feelings down by half because now our mind has two things going on: first, the feeling of trauma, and second, the act of watching ourselves have the attack. So we can say to ourselves, “Wow, I’m pretty upset right now. This situation has evoked deep feelings of fear, shame, hurt. But as I think about my thinking and my feeling, I greatly reduce the power of feelings of trauma.” And one more thing: in fact, when we have traumatic feelings and we watch ourselves having these feelings, we are also watching ourselves watch our reaction. So, we can look at it that we are actually cutting our trauma by two-thirds of the impact of our reaction to the trauma itself.

4. We tell our story. Telling our story of trauma can help us heal. Our experiences that led to our trauma are often terrible. They involve things such as sexual molestation, humiliations by people who are supposed to nurture us, and deep disappointments that parental figures are undependable. When we tell our stories to other people who understand, because they have similar trauma—or at least can empathize with our trauma—we can lessen some of the depth of our pain.

5. We practice the regulation of our emotions in therapy. In therapy, we can re-experience our trauma and learn to regulate our emotional reactions to it. Many therapists use experiential techniques to help people with trauma, including use of cognitive-behavioral techniques such as disputation, increased mindfulness, EMDR, tapping, and desensitization.

6. We can understand another person’s behavior. First, we do not need to forgive the person who has traumatized us, especially if we were abused in some awful way, and it may be that some people should never be forgiven. But if we can understand another’s behavior, it can help us to lessen our angry feelings. For example, I feel increased compassion for my mother as I understand her story better. Though she seemed to be a confident and competent person, I now realize that she was actually fragile and wounded. I have to a significant degree forgiven her—and it feels good.

Understanding our own trauma can also help us to understand the behavior of people who are now in our lives. Most importantly, when we can understand our partner’s trauma, we’re less likely to overreact to him or her. For example, if my partner gets overly upset about me forgetting our dinner plans, I can recall that her father, an alcoholic, often didn’t show up for family events. She is reliving that old moment.

7. We have compassion for self. Too often many of us remonstrate ourselves. We say to ourselves: “I shouldn’t feel this way. I shouldn’t get so upset.” It’s easy to be angry at ourselves for our strong reactions or critical of ourselves because of the things we do or say when we’re having a trauma attack. If we truly accept our trauma, and we learn to have some control over it, then we can accept ourselves and eventually also learn to have compassion for ourselves. When we are compassionate toward ourselves, we let go of our self-contemptuous reactions, and we instead feel sad for the hurt part of us.

8. We let go of the aspects of our masculinity that interfere with healing work. Therapeutic techniques for traumatized individuals require that clients acknowledge their trauma. This work is complicated and sometimes impeded for men because their socialization has taught them to ‘suck it up,’ ‘soldier on,’ ‘go it alone,’ or ‘man up.’ These messages are ironically the polar opposite of what’s necessary to generate progress in counseling for trauma. In working with traumatized men, we therefore use an integration of our Experiential Reclamation Therapy (ERT) and trauma work. More information about ERT is contained in our book, Mascupathy: Understanding and Healing the Malaise of American Men.

One final note.

My purpose in writing this explanation of trauma and how to heal it is not altogether altruistic—just to help you understand your trauma. In fact, the process of thinking about trauma and writing about it helps me to know myself, to enhance my understanding of my own traumatic experiences and how I can cope with them more effectively. We are always doing our own work on ourselves.

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