Hans Reihling, Ph.D., LMFT
Rethink Trauma: It's Not About Broken Brains
There are many misconceptions about traumatic stress, including the idea that once you have experienced a traumatic event you’re broken for life. This is based on the belief that something from the past – usually a memory – gets stuck in your nervous system and has an impact on the present. But the truth is, whatever gets stuck is changing over time depending on your life circumstances and relationships, your connections with others right now. Traumatic stress results from broken relationships and the cure is based on social connections that make life worth living.
Trauma is not just a psychological issue. Injury and abuse affect us in various ways depending on the circumstances. Different people who experience the same stressful event may react in very different ways: one may develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), while another may not show any symptoms a couple of weeks after the traumatic event. What makes the difference? It’s not the event in itself that matters, and it’s not just about you as an individual. What happens in your environment and relationships to significant others is key.
If you are isolated and socially excluded or lack social recognition, you are more likely to develop symptoms of traumatic stress. In contrast, positive social interactions and a healthy environment can neutralize the adverse effects of traumatic events. Family therapist and professor of social work, Michael Ungar has argued that the quality of the environment and its capacity to facilitate post-traumatic growth is the key to resilience in the face of adversity. Trauma recovery depends on a set of diverse elements and conditions in the here and now and is not determined by an event in the distant past.
As anthropologist Allen Young and epidemiologist Naomi Breslau argued, the link between exposure to harm and symptoms of distress is not as linear as the psychiatric diagnosis of PTSD suggests. This is the case because memories are malleable, and even events that were not experienced as stressful when they occurred may become troubling when recalled under particular circumstances, that is, long after the exposure. The implications are huge.
In my practice as a trauma therapist, systemic thinking is vital. Psychological trauma is often thought of in terms of a linear cause-and-effect relationship over time. However, the past does not only affect the present; the present and prospective future also affect our memories of the past. This means that the ongoing relationships with other people often determine whether or not you develop post-traumatic stress or how quickly you recover. This is good news. It's never too late to make a difference in terms of how we relate to each other and the world at large.
After all, traumatic stress is also about social justice and the struggle against systemic forms of exclusion within family, communities, as well as society at large. This involves overcoming ongoing prejudice and social stereotypes based on the color of your skin, your financial status, or your gender identity. If we see trauma as an issue of the past that's ‘stuck in the body,’ we may forget that the key to healing lies in meaningful social connections right here and now.
Learning to be vulnerable to take in the love of others while protecting yourself against abuse is a good start for trauma recovery and growth. It’s easier said than done because recovery is not just up to the individual. Healing is a collective task that requires people who have your back. It may or may not require a therapist or counselor, but it definitely requires strong connections to friends, family, or larger communities of care. When you're connected, you can also make a difference in other people's lives to create a world that is conducive to compassion and mutuality in relationships.