According to neurologist and trauma specialist Dr Robert Scaer, trauma is defined as "any negative life experience that happens under conditions of relative helplessness."
Common Sources of Trauma
Auto & other accidents, injuries, falls, surgeries, cancer, medical treatments, chronic health conditions, assault, bullying, abuse, neglect,
demanding/critical parent, teacher, or coach, abandonment, loss of a parent or loved one, witnessing violence/disaster, wartime experiences, animal attack, natural disasters, robbery, difficult childbirth, fire
Notice that while many of these experiences would likely traumatize anyone, others may be experienced with a sense of either helplessness or empowerment, and so can have variable impact on individuals.
Symptoms & conditions that can be related
to unresolved trauma
Anxiety, depression, chronic pain, hypervigilance, digestive problems, muscle tension, altered posture, headaches, altered immune function, dissociation, panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, conflict avoidance, risky behavior, fatigue, intense reactions, tinnitis, sleep problems, and various complex syndromes.
More About The Nervous System
Our autonomic nervous system (ANS), located in the brain stem and responsible for our basic life functions and survival, includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic branchs and can be described most simply as an interplay of activation and calming. Many people may be familiar with the term "fight or flight response." This important survival mechanism produces characteristic changes in the body in responce to a life-threat situation. But that same system- the sympathetic nervous system (SNS)- is the one activated under stress of many kinds, and also is involved any time we are mobilized for action. Without it we would be in hibernation! So it is important to be able to become appropriately activated throught our day and return readily to a resting state.
The resting state is produced by the other branch of our autonomic nervous system- the parasympathetic branch (PPNS). Often characterized as the "rest and digest" branch, it facilitates growth, nurturance, healing, and reproduction, functions that are shut down when we face the immediate need to protect ourselves.
Often the symptoms of unresolved trauma are present because the functioning of the SNS and PPNS are out of balance. We may have constant high levels of SNS activation, and the accompanying hormones cortisol and adrenaline/epinephrine, or find ourselves frequently triggered into unnecessary fight or flight response by everyday stressors. Another aspect of ANS imbalance can be a tendency to go into the freeze response- actually a deep parasympathetic state, which is a final attempt at survival in the face of helplessness. The freeze response has its own set of characteristic physiological changes that are unpleasant and problematic if the freeze becomes one of our habitual reactions to life's challenges.
In healing from trauma, we need to restore the balanced and dymanic interplay of sympathetic and parasympathetic functioning: calm our stress response and optimize our relaxation response. We work with sensation, both by providing novel sensory experience through therapeutic massage, and through learning to notice and describe sensations in the body.
Peter Levine, PhD, founder of Somatic Experiencing™ and author of multiple books about understanding and healing trauma, explains, “Trauma is encoded in the brain stem, the thalamus, the limbic system, and the hypothalamus, and the language of that part of the brain is bodily sensation. To investigate trauma, we have to be able to talk in that language, to guide the person in that language.”
The Chronic Pain Connection
Sometimes people who have trauma experience pain without an identifiable structural or pathological cause. This can be frustrating, discouraging, and isolating. Understanding how pain is generated in the body and how autonomic nervous system dysregulation may be involved in pain levels can help: explaining pain helps to alleviate pain!
Leading-edge pain neuroscience over the past 15 years has found that pain is a perceptual creation of the brain, and that input from the body is only one aspect of the matrix that creates a pain experience. This is not to say that chronic pain is "all in our head," or that we can consciously think our way out of pain, or that pain is our "fault." It is as real as any aspect of our experience. Pain processes happen at the unconscious level, involving our autonomic functioning and threat response cycle that happens outside our conscious awareness. In addition, the beliefs we hold about pain, and about our body, shape the pain experience that the unconscious parts of the brain create for us. Understanding these mechanisms is an important step because it helps us realize that we can change our pain experience using tools and techniques that calm our threat response and build a sense of safety at both the conscious and unconscious levels.
What about pain that has a clear connection to a chronic health condition, structural abnormality, inflammation, or degeneration in the body?
In this case also, it is important to understand that pain levels may be decreased and even eliminted through understanding pain science and using body-centered tools and mindful awareness techniques. For example, imaging studies of people with pain-free backs have found many of the same degenerative conditions as in people with back pain: herniated disks, bone spurs, etc. In addition, some people with back pain are not found to have any structural abnormalities. Observations such as these led researchers to question and investigate the historical viewpoint that pain is simply an input from the body. The current leading theory of pain is that it is created by a complex neuromatrix in the brain and involves emotion, memory, and association as much as nerve input from the body. Therefore, we can explore multiple means of altering the experience of pain, and improving the quality of life for those who with chronic conditions.