What’s “Trauma” Anyway? And How Do I Know If I’ve Cleared It?

Happy Friday!  You made it!  If you’re like many people here in the US, you might even be lucky enough to have next week off! Or at least some time off?

So as I mentioned last week, (remember? Probably not, but if you did, you would know that I promised you a blog that went deeper into the question “What is Trauma?”) So here it is!

I think it’s important to discuss these concepts right now because our trauma can lay dormant for years not impacting us at all UNTIL (badabadbum) our stress level gets high!

Well, guess what?  That’s happening to ALL of us right now!  So even though you may have been functioning ok up to this point, this could be the time when you’re starting to be impacted by old unhealed traumas.  Especially as this pandemic drags on and potentially interferes with normal plans over the holidays.  In this blog (which is going to be a little longer but I think this is really important) I’m going to explain what trauma really is and what it means to clear it.  I’m also going to tell you ways you can tell if your unhealed trauma is impacting you or not (it probly is) and ways to know if it’s time to get support.

Disclaimer:  this comes primarily from an EMDR perspective (EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing...it’s a Mind-Body Trauma treatment that has a lot of research backing it.  You can learn more about that here). I’m sure there are other perspectives on this subject. I hope that this gives you a helpful framework but it is more metaphoric than actual brain science.  I am not a neuroscientist, but I am a trauma therapist.  And I think most therapists trained in EMDR would agree with what I’m about to say.  However, therapists not trained in EMDR or trauma might have a different perspective.  

Anyway, the word trauma as I use it means any  “undigested” or “unprocessed” memories in the brain.  What does that mean?  It means memories of tough or disturbing events get stuck in the emotional center of our brain where they don’t belong.  Make your hand into a fist right now with your thumb inside (yes, this is what I do with my clients!) The thumb inside your fist represents the limbic system or the emotional center.  The outside, where your fingers are, is the prefrontal cortex or our “adult brain.”

Now normally when emotional things happen to us it sets off our limbic system but then during REM sleep gets refiled and consolidated in the prefrontal cortex.  When you think about it you don’t have any emotional response.  But sometimes, either because the event is too big to process, or it happens to us on a bad day (say we’re getting sick or hormonal) or we are just not good processors (that’s me!) that memory of that event stays stuck in the limbic system. When these memories don’t move to the prefrontal cortex on their own, they can wreak havoc on our body, mind and spirit.  Seemingly innocuous events or stimuli in our environment can set off a limbic response, which is basically what we all know as the fight or flight (or freeze) response.  

So what does that mean?  It means we freak out!  Either we get super anxious and don’t know why, or we get angry and fly off the handle, or we just feel worthless all of a sudden.  We can’t think logically anymore and we “flip our lid.”  This is actually true because when the limbic system is active our adult brain literally goes off line! (Back to your fist, raise your fingers showing the thumb underneath...that’s what happens!)

 This is what people mean when they say “I got so triggered!”  

The most obvious and graphic example of how this works is the stereotypical story of the post-war veteran.  He (or she) walking down the street or something and she hears the sound of a helicopter and hits the deck right there because he feels he is under attack.  That is extreme PTSD and obviously is terrible and needs treatment asap.  But this is just an extreme and obvious example of what happens to all of us!  

In most of our lives, the trauma is less severe and so it has a way more subtle impact.  We might get criticized by our boss or spouse and suddenly feel worthless and alone (or enraged.)  We might go skiing and suddenly have a panic attack at the top of the mountain (this happened to me!) and find that it is related to a past trauma that had the same emotional resonance. It doesn’t have to even be related to the event, but it can be.  For example, I had a client with a fear of driving that was rooted in a bus trip where he pee’d his pants as a kid and felt humiliated.

So, as you can see, it’s not just the size of the traumatic event that matters. What matters is how it gets stored in the brain.  A lot of people come to me and say “Yeah but I don’t have any trauma!”  Or “my trauma’s not effecting me!”  Maybe, but I kind of doubt it.  First of all do you diagnose yourself in any other health-related situation?  Would you go to your dentist and say “Yeah, but I don’t have any cavities!” Or do you go to your Internist and say “Yeah but I don’t have any of that cancer.”  I mean, do you see my point?

Second of all our undigested memories are responsible for any and all symptoms we might be experiencing. I’m serious!  ANYTHING. So if you literally have zero symptoms and nothing you are unsatisfied with in your life, then you can fairly say you are not being impacted by your trauma.  But aren’t we all trying to improve at least some area of our life?  I mean none of us are perfect.  Maybe you’re anxious about COVID (who isn’t), or you’re depressed, or you keep yelling at your kids even though you want to be patient, or you can’t lose weight, you’re stressed out at work because your boss is an asshole....ALL of these things can be improved by working on unhealed trauma and memories stuck in your limbic system!  I like to say, trauma is ANYTHING that REALLY BUGS you.  

Now of course there are things that happen that are bad and difficult. A loved one dies, you get divorced, you lose your job, your kid goes off to college (oh wait that’s supposed to be a good thing!)  It’s normal to have reactions to things.  But even the normal things can be made easier with some deeper trauma healing and EMDR.  That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this blog, to let more people know that there IS something you can do!  Even when you you think your reaction is just “normal.”

I’ve worked with a lot of people recently on the death of their dogs (I’m using this example because it’s simple and easy to understand/relate to).  I mean on one hand, that’s just really hard. It’s so normal to feel really upset about it, but EMDR helps people move through even this normal response quicker and with less suffering than if they don’t have the intervention.  

Why is that?  Because the death of our dog triggers all the unhealed trauma from any past death and loss that you may have experienced that is still stuck in your limbic system.  Make sense? If you can minimize the impact of the past on the present, the present becomes more manageable.  Plus the EMDR techniques I teach actually help you to move through this grief more quickly too. It’s a win-win.  

So how do we move these stuck memories from the limbic system into the prefrontal cortex?

There are many mind/body trauma treatments out there.  I am certified in EMDR therapy (which I usually have the best luck with), but I’ve also done training in IFS (Internal Family Systems)AIT (Advanced Integrated Therapy) and EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) but there are others. All of these treatments are designed to move the memory from the limbic system to the prefrontal cortex using specific mind/body protocols.  I can tell when something has truly been digested by asking some specific questions and listening deeply to the answer. You can also tell on a PET scan, but who’s got the money for that?

You can sometimes tell it’s been processed yourself!  You feel free. Like a weight has been lifted.  Like there are more possibilities open to you in your life.  It’s kind of magical, which is why I love this work so much!  

I particularly enjoy working with what I call “ordinary trauma” because it has such a huge impact in allowing people to live their dreams and purpose. Each trauma cements a belief system into our unconscious mind.  This belief then drives the bus of our life.

The on-line course I’ve referred to in previous emails that I’ve been working on goes over the foundation work you need to know to dive deeper into this kind of healing.  It’s called “How to Take Your Life From Bland and Tasteless to Spicy and Delicious”  But really it’s about trauma!  Trauma is the biggest thing standing in the way of your ideal, most joyful life!  Can you see why that is now?  Imagine if you had no trigger responses! (This isn’t possible really, but imagining it can help you see the potential here.)  You would only be feeling your feelings related to events that were actually happening in the moment.  You would never be overwhelmed by your emotions because we can all deal with our emotions if we are not reliving the past with it. You would be in a state of greater happiness more of the time.  I’m sure you know about positive attitude and happiness and it’s relation to performance and your ability to create successful outcomes in your life, right?

So when should I seek help to clear my trauma?

Honestly, it’s up to you!  Only you can decide how much you are willing to tolerate the things you don’t like in your life, right?  Some people need trauma therapy because they are really struggling with mental illness. For my clients, however, it’s more about personal growth and wanting to live their best life.

It up to you to choose what is important to work on and what can wait.  There are times when I don’t seek help for certain things, even though I know I could benefit, because it’s just not worth it to me.

For example, I’m terrified to jump out of an airplane.  I know for sure that if I worked on that with EMDR, I could change that limitation in my life! BUT the truth is, I don’t even want to jump out of an airplane! I don’t care enough to make the investment.  Does that make sense?  

When it comes to my kids, however, I’ll invest anything in my own growth to create a better life for them.  My motto is “the Buck Stops HERE.”  I refuse to pass on my trauma or my ancestors’ trauma  (cuz ancestral trauma is a real, scientifically validated thing) to my children (as much as I can help it anyway, I know I can’t be perfect)  It might be something minor going on with them, but I want to make sure I’m able to respond to their problems as authentically and presently as possible, so that I’m not passing down MY old trauma to them.  

For example, I called my therapist when my son’s girlfriend broke up with him. I know I went through a very difficult breakup when I was his age.  I didn’t want my own unhealed trauma to interfere with my ability to be present with him in his pain.

I feel like if more people and especially parents did this trauma clearing, our whole world would change!  

But to some people this sounds miserable and taxing.  If that’s the case for you, you don’t have to do it!  You are free to make your own choices in life.  I can guarantee though that if you find the right person to work with, the process should be at least a little fun, even when it’s tough!

Anyway, I hope this at least gives you a cursory understanding of what trauma is and how to heal it.  If you have more questions or you think I didn’t address something, please let me know.  Maybe I’ll write another blog about that!

And if any of this resonates with you and you would like to get started with this work that helps, not only yourself, but everyone around you, please give me a call.  I’m giving away free 30 min consults to see if we are a fit to work together more deeply.  What have you got to lose? 

Blessings for a beautiful Thanksgiving Season!




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