There is something that we all have in common; we all came from somewhere. We didn’t just arrive in the present. And because we are all on a journey we all have stories to tell. All of us have had adverse experiences and many of us have lived through trauma. Unfortunately, too many people have stories that include big traumatic events like the loss of everything they have and needing to leave everything behind because of a natural disaster.
If we want to help those who have lived through these very traumatic experiences, we will need to have a basic understanding of trauma. We will need this basic understanding in order to cultivate the empathy necessary for us to become compassionate people. Compassion is defined as “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.”
But what is empathy? I find that it is often a misunderstood response. All it means is that we choose to identify with another person’s thoughts and feelings. Empathy doesn’t mean that you shared the experience, it means that we choose to connect with someone who is hurting.
A large part of connecting with someone who is hurting is understanding that their loss and pain is real. We need to understand their experiences as best we can so that we can be fully present with them in the moment. Many hurting people need someone to hang in there with them and not give up on them. They need us to focus on them and really see them. Whenever I read that “Jesus saw the crowd” in the gospels, I know that he not only saw them as individuals but that he saw their hurts and their needs well.
If we want to connect with hurting people we have to remain open to their thoughts and feelings. We can’t be dismissive of either of those two things because trauma is personal. Our thoughts and feelings have to be secondary to theirs. In order to help them the best we can, we will need to have some understanding of:
- What trauma is
- How it impacts a person
- How it informs their behavior
Many challenging interactions and behaviors are driven by people’s histories and experiences. Much of what we interpret as controlling or manipulative behaviors are rooted in the individual’s desire to survive. We have to reject “us vs. them” thinking and compassionately embrace a posture of togetherness as we focus on becoming their ally, coach, and advocate.
What is trauma?
Trauma is either a physical wound or a psychological injury…or both. Most of the people we encounter have experienced both. As a result, they are living in a state of stress and fear which drives the development of survival tactics and negative behaviors. It will serve us well if we remember that behaviors are always an expression of a need. We have to learn to follow the needs be they physical, emotional, or spiritual if we want to help.
We can’t forget that trauma is personal and we cannot dismiss someone’s response to an event that they lived through. Remember, our thoughts and feelings have to be secondary to theirs.
What is the impact of trauma?
There are five things impacted by trauma. They are a person’s:
All of us are familiar with the left and right hemispheres of the brain, but fewer are familiar with the concept of the downstairs and upstairs brain. A simple explanation is that the amygdala (also referred to the “primal brain”) is the first part of our brains to form in utero. It forms at the top of the brainstem and is where all of our emotional and fear responses come from. This is the downstairs brain.
The upstairs brain is where logic and reason live. People who’ve experienced trauma or who are stressed and afraid will access downstairs brain more frequently and more easily than people who have not lived through trauma. When we encounter somebody who is operating from their downstairs brain instead of their upstairs brain, an easy way to help them access their upstairs brain is to ask them questions that start with who, what, where, when, why, how. It forces them back to the logical part of their brain because they cannot answer any question that starts with one of those 7 words with yes or no. They have to think about their answer. If you need information from an emotional, stressed, or traumatized person then helping them move back into their upstairs brain is a valuable skill.
Trauma has a pretty significant impact on a body’s ability to process sensory inputs. That is why people who are stressed will sometimes rock back and forth or find push on parasympathetic pressure points like their temples or upper lips. We have to be aware of this so that we will not become distracted or annoyed when someone we are trying to help does these things.
Trauma has a negative impact on a person’s neurochemistry. All of the good chemicals like dopamine tend to be too low and all of the negative chemicals like cortisol tend to be too high. Being aware that traumatized people will respond in non-typical ways is important to remember.
Traumatic experiences can have a negative impact on a person’s belief system. Trauma will often cause people to believe that they deserve the bad things that happened to them, or that they are not worthy of good things. Working with hurting people requires of us to make them feel like they matter.
Not only do traumatic experiences lead negative behaviors, but they hinder a person’s ability to regulate their own behavior. One of the behaviors that frequently manifests is the desire to control all situations. Because part of their traumatic experience is rooted on chaos they do not wish to live in chaos ever again. Giving some control to a traumatized person is an invaluable part of their healing.
How does trauma inform behavior?
Hebbian Theory tells us that “what fires together, wires together.” In simple terms when we experience something neurons fire and wire together to make new neurological pathways. This explains why we can hit a golf ball without thinking about all of the mechanics of our swing, or serve a tennis ball without thinking about what we are doing, or how we can arrive at work in the morning and have no memories of the trip between our home and our office. But, the Hebbian Theory works in the negative too. It explains why traumatized children rarely if ever have a good experience at places like Chuck E Cheese. Their experiences have taught them that when things get loud people (usually me) get hurt.
People who have experienced traumatic events tend to have at least one of these fear responses:
Fight is the easiest response to explain because it is the most obvious. It can be physical or it can be verbal but there is a component of aggression involved. A fight response doesn’t mean you are argumentative or difficult to deal with, it can mean that you are scared.
Flight another response almost explains itself. It means to leave to run away. One of the things we have to remember is that we can flee a situation emotionally when we are not able to flee the situation physically. This might be the person who can’t give you a straight answer or who cracks a joke at an inappropriate time. That’s usually my response to difficult situations. A flight response doesn’t mean you’re uncooperative, it can be that you are scared.
Freeze is the least understood of the fear responses. Have you ever asked someone a question and all you got back was a blank stare? This is a classic freeze response. They are not ignoring you, they are giving you what they can and in that moment what they can give you is nothing. A fear response doesn’t mean you are defiant, it can mean that you’re scared.
I hope that this has been helpful by increasing your understanding of what trauma is, how it impacts a person, and how it informs their behavior. I hope that you feel like you are better equipped to connect with hurting people so you can be an active agent in bringing healing to their lives.
Here are some additional resources if you’d like to learn more about trauma.