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  • Lisa McMichael

Trauma Defined


I define trauma very broadly as a disturbing experience that produces distressing symptoms. I view trauma on a continuum from moderate disturbance to the presence of severe symptoms (or little trauma and big trauma). When danger is perceived, the body responds automatically by sending the sympathetic nervous system into high alert, sending out hormones (such as cortisol and adrenaline), preparing the body to flee or fight by sending more energy into the muscles, heart, and cardiovascular system. One may freeze and be unable to move.


The neo-cortex of the brain is shut down by the powerful inner limbic system. The limbic system is the residence of the “fight or flight” system and it will gain command and act instinctually. There is no time to “think” about what to do when faced with danger – quick action is necessary. The area of speech (Broca’s area) in the neo-cortex is shut down also, making it difficult to receive speech and communicate with words.


If the trauma has overwhelmed our ability to cope, then the traumatic experience is encoded in implicit memory. This coding is very different from explicit memory which consists of words in story form. Implicit memory holds the memory in fragments, pieces of images, physical sensations, sounds, smells – all which may contain highly charged emotions.


Once the danger passes, the energy is discharged physically by shaking, running, crying, or pacing. The memory is processed into explicit memory and coded as a meaningful narrative that describes the experience and forms our beliefs about ourselves. If the memory does not become processed into a narrative explicit memory, then the memory is held in its pieces in the limbic system with the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations experienced at the time of the trauma.

The limbic system has no time reference and past experiences can be triggered by something in the environment, causing aspects of the memory to flood back into the present. We may be so immersed in the past memory that we feel that we are reliving the trauma. Or we may have an uneasiness, anxiety, or anger and not realize we are experiencing symptoms from past trauma.


It takes a great deal of energy to block the past trauma from erupting into the present. Despite our efforts, the trauma will emerge and interfere with our present life. Past trauma has the potential to greatly impact the present and is often the reason we sabotage ourselves in achieving our goals. Past trauma may infuse us with anger, fear, hesitancy, insecurity, and self-sabotaging behavior stemming from our negative belief sets.


However, the great news is that we don’t have to carry around the baggage of our past trauma. We are frequently so accustomed to the load that the weight is a part of our experience, a familiar burden to which we are desensitized. If we envision our trauma as bricks in a backpack, we can unpack our negative experiences, one by one, brick by brick, until we feel the freedom to dump the pack altogether. When we dissolve the emotional pain around an experience, the negative beliefs that sprang from that disturbance is no longer supported, and more accurate, adaptive beliefs take their rightful place in our internal language.


How is this achieved? It is imperative to dive into our limbic system world, exhume our experiences, beliefs, or body felt sense, and (in EMDR terminology) bring the experience to the adaptive experience of NOW. We connect the fragmented, hurt part of ourselves to our adult mind -- our rational and more experienced self -- and the union in the present moment of the past experience and the knowing of the present allows a healing experience and corrective beliefs to emerge.


Healing isn’t easy work; bringing up past pain, or current stresses is difficult. But dissolving our emotional pain or coping skills that keep us from the pain (overeating, addictions, blocking of emotions) gives us true empowerment and freedom.Sabotaging ourselves evaporates, and we can direct our energies towards our highest good, connection with others, and a more fulfilling life.


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