Three types of trauma

By Pablo Das

I define trauma as that which arises when an event or a set of ongoing conditions overwhelms one's capacity for presence and an empowered response. Trauma leaves feeling victimized and unable to respond. It overwhelms. If it doesn't overwhelm, it's probably not trauma. Trauma leaves us with a vast array of possible symptoms which effect us on many levels. Trauma effects self regulatory abilities, the way we view ourselves and our relational capacities. 

In my work, I recognize three general categories of trauma. 

1.  Single event or "shock" trauma.

2.  Developmental trauma.

3. The trauma of social oppression.

Shock trauma occurs when an event like a sexual assault, an attack or an accident overwhelms or leaves us feeling disempowered or victimized. One interesting thing about single event trauma is that different people will have different experiences with the same event. For example, two people can be in an accident but only one of them may experience trauma symptoms. This means trauma isn't just about the event. It's about an individual person's experience with an event which might be determined by the state of their particular nervous system.

This brings us to the type of trauma that's related to our development and early childhood. Our brains and nervous systems develop in relationship to our environment growing up. Especially in relationship to our primary caregivers. What happens in our childhood environment has a big impact on our capacity to meet adverse experiences later in life. As adults, those of us with nervous systems that have been impacted by developmental trauma, may have less resilience or capacity than others and be more vulnerable to potentially traumatizing experiences. 

Social marginalization and oppression is potentially very traumatizing. Social oppression like racism, homophobia and transphobia are pervasive and ever present.  This kind of trauma might precipitate symptoms that look a lot like both developmental and single event trauma, but it's worthy of a distinction because it's a much more personal kind of trauma. The ever present threat is connected to who you are or who you might be perceived to be. Also social trauma is an ongoing experience. While single event trauma, like an accident, is contained within a definable period of time, oppression isn't. It creates a threat that endures on many levels and operates in subtle and profound ways every day throughout the duration of one's life. Furthermore, a person who is a member of an oppressed social group may experience intergenerational trauma which manifests as traumatic symptoms that are connected to a legacy of oppression from earlier generations. This type of trauma is transmitted at the genetic level. 

Many people in our society have all three of these types of trauma occurring at once. 

The management and resolution of trauma can be a complex matter. It's usually long term work. Some level of mindful presence is required for the resolution of trauma. But mindfulness can also become counterproductive if not integrated in a trauma informed way. Traumatic content is very powerful and the traumatized psychology can be very sensitive. Traditional mindfulness practice needs to be balanced with an understanding of how trauma operates. In my view, mindfulness itself is not a path to healing trauma, but people with a background in mindfulness practice are well positioned to do the work of trauma management and resolution.

Holistic wellness principles are also helpful because they create a context in which one can be conscious of how they build capacity and resilience. Sometimes when clients get dysregulated or experience what some of my clients call being "in the trauma vortex" It's helpful to have a map for restoring resilience. And coming back from the vortex. This is where being conscious of a more holistic approach to wellness can be very useful. They allow us to identify variables we can engage to support self regulation and resilience in the system. 

Somatic experiencing is my preferred method for mapping the trauma healing process and supporting management and ultimate resolution. In somatic experiencing we think of trauma symptoms as manifestations of incomplete self protective responses. We work with the system to support a process of moving towards resolution of those symptoms by bringing them to completion in a safe and turreted way, without overwhelming the system again.The work happens in phases. At first the client may find themselves in a chaotic place where there's no real agency and a sense of being out of control. Building capacity and learning certain skill sets, including mindfulness and self regulatory practices, brings us into a sense of more control over our experience. In the begin from we cultivate more presence and a capacity for self regulation. It is in the context of that second phase of capacity and skill building that we can finally move to completion of incomplete self protective responses. All of this influences and requires a reframing of how we view ourselves and helps to shift relational patterns as well replacing deference to others anddisempowerment with more boundaries, a sense of self respect and an ability to defend oneself physically and emotionally.