Trauma and the body – What is trauma? {Part 1}

Today I want to introduce a topic that deserves entire books to be written about. How often do we reduce our physical practice to external purposes, like that nice handstand or a strong deadlift, and forget what is really crucial to our personal development and the wellbeing of our companionships.

But we know that the body is more. Friedrich Nietzsche would write “Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, stands a mighty ruler, an unknown sage – it is called the subconscious self; it dwells in your body, it is your body.” The body is not the instrument of your mind nor the carriage for your soul, but rather it is intertwined with those two to such extent that separation seems like an offense.

And trauma is a challenge to that very unity.

Let’s start by understanding trauma. This concept comes from the medical profession, and refers to a challenge to which the system cannot recover from. Life can be viewed as a series of challenges, to which one answers. The thing is, when there is a challenge so great that the system (this is, yourself) cannot deal with, there is a situation for trauma.

Let’s say you are walking on the street and you suddenly find a rhino in front of you. As an animal, when facing danger you have three basic options of response, that are not exclusive between them. On the first place, you can reach out for social help. In here, you would seek the succor of close ones to help you face the challenge. If this doesn’t work, you may activate your fight or flight response and, as such, either face the rhino or run away from it. If neither or those helps, the system might activate the colapse or freezing response, trying to preserve the organism by shutting down its functions and storing as much energy as possible.

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Image from The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.

All of this are normal and sane responses, but what makes them pathological is their preservation. Once the challenge is gone, the response should also be gone, but that is not always the case. One reason for this is that we humans are so caught up on our minds that we can stay for months, years or an entire lifetime being affected and responding to an specific event. Haven’t you ever found yourself going into the same paths of response to that challenge you got over a long time ago? Nevertheless, most of our traumas come from the time without memory, the time of early childhood. They mark our lives and make us who we are.

So trauma is the preservation of a response in the absence of its challenge. Trauma is not the thing that happened, but the imprint that situation left on us. It is a decontextualized situation: some part of you has stayed in the past, while another one is trying to life in the present. It is a rupture, a split between different aspects of yourself that makes you feel incomplete, insufficient. Trauma is separation.

I want to put an example. In a social phycology class I had recently, we studied the case of a woman in the military dictatorship in Argentina. An autor called Marcelo Viñar described a very strong case, in which a woman was changed forever due to tortures in a context of political opposition. You know what is torture? It is a dilemma. The torturer puts the tortured in a decision. Either he saves his body as living and purely suffering flesh, or he betrays his identity by accusing himself, his ideology or friends. It is the decision between saving the integrity of your body or the integrity of your identity, one that is served by the separation of the two realities.

Another author we studied was Gabriel Gatti, who explained that in cases of disappearance the mechanism of torture is replied, but over a perpetual term. Whenever there is a missing person, the irrefutable proof that they have died is the corpse. When there isn’t a body, in people’s memory there is still an identity of a person with name, preferences, story and so on, all of which have being disassociated from a body. By experience we know that one identity is equal to one body. When this basic rule is broken there is a situation of constant psychological torture, because the nonexistence of the body does not allows for the duel to be lived, and people cannot know for certain whether the person is dead or alive.

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Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, who for decades waited their children to reappear- dead or alive.

This two situations -torture and disappearance- show us two crucial facts about trauma.

On the one hand, there are no traumatic situations per se, but rather situations of insufficient facing mechanisms that create the opportunity for trauma. In the work of researcher Martha Bello, a facing mechanism is anything at your disposal that helps you face a challenge. This ranges from ideologies, money, social support, an specific body type, and any resources that increases your odds of overcoming a challenge. This things are what constitutes your resilience, meaning the capacity for overcoming a challenge. In other words, trauma and resilience go hand to hand.

For example, if you are sad due to a fight and posting a picture on instagram makes you feel better, that is one facing mechanism. This means that where one person can be traumatized in his live due to a challenge, another one can be relatively tranquil with the same event. This is why the birth experience is so strong for all of us, because it mixes a really difficult situation with total vulnerability. Facing trauma is not a matter of courage, but of adaptation.

On the other hand, even though the nature of trauma is one of being overwhelmed, a traumatic situation is not necessarily “big”. I have used examples like torture or disappearance, but the reality is that even if your life has go on relatively well, we all certainly carry some traumas. Trauma can be acute, coming from a single and harsh event, or it can be chronic, originating from a gathering of little situations that with time accumulate and create a problem. No one wants to be called traumatized, and we have to restrain from reducing people to that, but that doesn’t hides the fact that we have all lived traumatic events.

To give an example, evolutionarily we are not used to deal with abstract or indirect problems. Our life has, for the most part of evolution, being one of physical and direct challenges, like the attack of a tiger or the fall of our house. Our current time is the contrary- we have to deal with problems as abstract as climate change, war or poverty. How do we properly response to this? The inability to give a response that solves the problem at hand, the sustainability of these challenges despite our best efforts, and the constant media bombardment with them, creates a perfect situation for the passive watcher to also experience trauma.

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What can we as individuals do against most of the problems we face today? The hard truth is that our time is one of problems that require the most unity, but we are more separated than ever before.

To keep this posts at reasonable length, we will discuss how does trauma affects the body and the mind in a second post, and strategies to face trauma in a third post.

For now, try to be aware of how are you responding to life challenges- from a new perspective, or from an old one that does not corresponds with the situation at hand. Let us all follow the advice by the incredible Mercedes Sosa, “We have to let all things out, like spring, so there can be a sprout of good things inside”.

Click here to see the next post in this series.

I’d like to thank my social psychology professor, Juan Pablo Aranguren,  for many of the ideas in this post. If you’d like to know more about these topics, I recommend the work of David Berceli and Bessel Van der Kolk


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