Throughout our relationship, Martha has established a consistent pattern of signing me up for things I would never do on my own. And while this often makes me uncomfortable, I am always grateful in retrospect (ok, usually always). In that spirit, we recently attended the Trauma Research Foundation’s 33rd Annual International Trauma Conference. No, you didn’t miss something. We are not psychiatrists, therapists, or clinicians of any sort, so why would we travel to Boston and spend four days learning about psychological trauma?
To answer that, let’s first understand what we mean by “trauma.” The etymology is simple: trauma is Greek for “wound,” and until the late 1800s the word’s usage in English was literal. Trauma meant a physical wound or injury. It still means that today, of course, but by the end of the nineteenth century, the word trauma was being used to refer to psychological wounds as well.
Physical trauma is what happens when something overwhelms our body’s defenses. When an impact exceeds the strength of a bone, the bone breaks. This is physical trauma, and without intervention, the broken bone will typically not heal well, and sometimes not at all.
Psychological trauma is much the same. Whether it be a single terrible event or the accumulation of stressors over time, when our psychological defenses and coping mechanisms are overwhelmed we are left with a psychological wound, with trauma. We are not able to make sense of what happened. We are unable to properly integrate the experience into our current understanding of the world. We fail to form coherent memories. We cannot stay present – our bodies are in one place, but our minds are somewhere else. We suffer a psychological injury that will not heal on its own, at least not well. The trauma remains with us, as if it were a broken leg that was not properly set. Over time we may regain some function, but without intervention the injury remains, and when we move in the wrong way we will re-experience pain in badly-healed leg all over again.
This is what distinguishes psychological trauma from the stresses, painful experiences, and hardships that all of us encounter throughout our lives. Trauma is not remembered as a terrible thing that happened in the past. With trauma, the terrible event is re-experienced, viscerally, all over again in the present. Here the line between the psychological and the physical begins to blur. Our brains and our bodies are not separate. They are part of one organism. Psychological trauma causes measurable physical changes in the brain, and because our brains and the rest of our bodies are intricately interconnected, these injuries to the mind manifest themselves not just cognitively or emotionally, but as physical symptoms too. Our memory of the events is often fragmented, incomplete, or even totally absent, yet the trauma remains in us, in our bodies. As psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk teaches, The Body Keeps the Score, which is both the title of his extraordinary book on trauma and the key finding of his decades of research and clinical experience.
Back to the original question: Martha and I became interested in this work because we are deeply interested in human behavior, and about weaving our humanity back into the workplace. We are passionate about gaining greater understanding of what drives our thoughts, emotions, and actions. Why do we do the things we do?
That is, of course, a very big question. There are as many causes of human behavior as there are humans. Genetics plays a large role in essentially all human behavior, including inner “behavior” like patterns of thought and emotion. But external factors – our physical, social, and cultural environments – exert strong influence as well. In the larger picture, trauma is just one of many external factors that shape us. Thus, when we see negative behaviors that frustrate, confuse, and frighten us, either in ourselves or in others, we should not automatically assume that they stem from a history of trauma, but at the same time we must remain aware that they often do. Trauma is just one factor, just one of many answers to why we do the things we do. But trauma can affect us powerfully, and it can do so instantly.
Importantly, as I deepen my understanding of why we do what we do, perhaps the most important learning has been noticing not just the factors that are present, but those that are absent. Nowhere on the list of potential causes for human behavior do I find things like, “he’s just lazy,” or “she’s just a jerk.” I cannot find data indicating, ”he’s just a selfish person,” or “she’s just a bad apple,” as valid explanations of behavior. Certainly humans are capable of bad and sometimes truly monstrous behavior. But the more I look, the more I struggle to find evidence that these behaviors are freely chosen – that they are just one’s nature. Ultimately, we do what we do as a result of myriad complex and interacting factors, of which trauma is a particularly potent contributor. As I consider these many factors, I cannot help but notice that most of them lie beyond our direct control – certainly that is true of trauma. For me this is important knowledge – important because it unlocks the door to greater compassion.
I was inspired to write this because, after hearing about our experience in Boston, a friend asked me if I had one or two actionable takeaways. Now that he was aware of the prevalence and impact of trauma, what could he do differently, starting today? I was, frankly, a bit stumped. This is a weighty topic, after all – incredibly complex with many aspects that remain poorly understood. I am still struggling to metabolize even the basics, but it is an important question worthy, I felt, of a serious answer. So, assuming you are not a clinician treating trauma in your practice, what can you do?
I had no clear answer then; but now, with the benefit of a bit of time to reflect, I would offer the following:
- Look inward. We can begin to notice where our personal suffering or shortcomings might be the result not of our flaws, weaknesses, or inadequacies, but rather the consequences of an injury – of trauma – that we need to heal.
- Look around you. We can be mindful that we never know who is in the room. We can be more sensitive to the reality that many of the people we live and work with have experienced trauma, and we can be a little more patient when their behavior frustrates us.
- Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with others, too.
As coaches and advisors for personal, interpersonal, and cultural growth, we can start with these three actions, and hopefully add more. With permission, and inside a trusting relationship, we can offer resources that can help people more effectively overcome trauma. We will describe some of these in future articles. Interestingly, the most effective treatments for trauma are often not what people expect. Until then, just by broadening our understanding of these most difficult human experiences, I hope we can all begin to have deeper compassion for ourselves and the people around us in a way that makes work and life just a little better.