The stigma is fading. The definition of trauma (and complex trauma or developmental trauma) has been changing over the last few decades. It was once considered an extreme response to extreme situations. Now, after so many years of biological and neurological studies, we are coming to realize that reactions like post-traumatic stress ‘disorder’ (PTSD) and personality ‘disorders’ (Borderline Personality Disorder BPD, Narcissistic Personality Disorder NPD, etc.) are actually quite ordered and purposeful, that they stem from early life abuse and/or neglect (sometimes unintentional or benevolent, sometimes unrecognized). Difficult childhood events may act as precursers to extreme reactions in later life — to freeze responses — to various ways of organizing experience that tend to keep many individuals stuck, repeating unwanted intra-personal and inter-personal patterns. These are no longer rare situations, but natural reactions to the process of growing up and adapting to fit imperfect situations.
This is almost everybody. We all endure traumas in life. Some find love and support in their families, mitigating the damage and finding ways to integrate. Others struggle to incorporate the pain, splitting or separating from overwhelming parts of self. The complex trauma of life brings with it a range of adaptations, including varying degrees of anxiety, depression, shame, and stuckness.
When we speak of trauma, we speak of unprocessed panic, of continually unmet needs, of controlling atmospheres or patterns of abuse or abandonment still triggered and physically activated by events in everyday life. For many, trauma reveals itself in a sense of ‘learned helplessness’ – the perceived/trained inability to function or adapt in this world.
These patterns might arise as PTSD. AND, they could just as easily be present in everyday anxiety/depression, expectations of judgment or failure, or numbness, inability to focus, excessive risk-taking, hyper- or hypo-sexualization, digestive problems, chronic pain, mood roller-coasters, isolation, a draw to fantasy, subservience, behavioral or chemical addictions, ability to appreciate events only in retrospect, fatalism, helplessness, perfectionism, rejecting or chasing others, over-analyzing, or a whole variety of nameable symptoms.
Trauma changes many individuals at a character-level. Many may carry vestiges of various ‘unfinished’ developmental stages, continually seeking situations that might somehow provide the missing and desired experience that they never got.
We can address the symptoms, or we can treat the source.
This is where therapy comes in.