What is trauma?

| 24 minutes | Media Contact: University Communications


Does trauma ever go away? What can be done to lessen its lasting effects? And what sort of help is out there for people dealing with trauma? 

Get answers to some of the most asked questions surrounding trauma.




Adam: Does trauma ever go away? What can be done to lessen its lasting effects? And what sort of help is out there for people dealing with trauma? Welcome to The Search Bar. You've got questions. Let's find some answers. Bypass Google and sidle up to the search bar instead. As Central Michigan University's amazing team of experts helps us answer some of the Internet's most asked questions. I'm your host, Adam Sparkes, and on today's episode, we're searching for answers about trauma. Nikita Murry, director of Diversity Education at Central Michigan University is here to help us do just that.

Adam: Hi Nikita, thanks for coming in and talking to me. We're going to talk a little bit about one of your many interesting backgrounds in counseling. We're going to talk a little bit about trauma, how people navigate trauma, and how probably we all have a little bit of trauma that's informing the way we're behaving as adults. But I thought it would be helpful if you could tell our audience a little bit about what your background is when it comes to trauma as a topic.

Nikita: Sure. So, I am a licensed professional counselor by trade, and as a part of starting that journey, I developed, I still call it an opportunity to help youth who had experienced physical or sexual abuse in their lives somewhere along the way. So, either their family experienced that it was a part of their upbringing or they directly experienced it, and that just put me on this path to understanding the importance of trauma-informed practices in everything that we do, and just really looking at how much we walk around with these experiences that we've had that shape or in some kind of way drive our lives and when we're our best selves, we've been able to attend to it and kind of not let it manage us. And when we haven't attended to it is where we see kind of problems pop up. And, so, what can we as professionals do to just try to help people live their best lives and be their best selves?

What is trauma?

Adam: I think what would help to set a baseline of at least where your opinion is on this, I want to define trauma. What is the difference between just trauma and regular stress? So, if people are having a hard time pinpointing, at least from your professional experience, what is trauma?

Nikita: Well, I always try to explain trauma in the simplest form, and it's when something happens in our life that basically shakes us to the degree that it changes how we see ourselves, the world around us, and how we do things, then that is a trauma or traumatic experience in life. And it's not the same as stress or an accident where something occurs, we address it and we kind of reset and move on. Those things can be temporarily jarring for us, but they don't have the longevity of a traumatic experience where it's embedded in us where we significantly change our lives and how we live our lives because of it. And then of course, trauma has a range of how it's experienced to the most extreme to, again, something that happens occurs, we can process it and reset ourselves, recalibrate, and go back to life. And part of, I think the struggle that we have as people in understanding trauma is that we've made the world the word so casual, right?

So, we substitute it for embarrassment. You went to holler at somebody or say hello to a crush, and that person turned you down and you were a little hurt by it. You were a little embarrassed by it. Maybe people saw it happen. And so that experience for you, especially when we're younger, we'll say, oh, I was traumatized by that. No, you were a little embarrassed by that. You will get over it. But it was not the true sense of trauma. To get back to even how you started out and thinking about, well, what is trauma? Trauma is that thing that happens outside of your control that is so impactful that it changes how you see the world and you see yourself to the degree that it prevents you from doing things how you normally would. And it changes you. It changes how you do things. You live with it and it's living with you, if that makes sense.

What are signs of being traumatized?

Adam: What are those common signs? What are the common effects of trauma?

Nikita: So, even when you think about those responses, those are survival responses, right? And there is some of that to a traumatic experience, and we do have to decide how we're going to survive it. And what's interesting about the fight, flight, or freeze mechanism is that we don't even get to decide which one of those we're going to use at any given time. When you hear people who respond to someone else's survival of a traumatic incident they say, “Oh, I would've done this thing.” No, you would’ve done what your brain told you to do at that moment because really it's your brain that's making the decision about whether will you fight, will you freeze. Will you run? Your brain makes that decision for you. And the nerd in me is resisting going into all of the brain mechanisms.

Adam: Why does he do this or that?

Nikita: So, when you think about the fact that we've all, for the most part, survived a global pandemic, we've never experienced anything like that in our current generation, and yet we have expectations of our spouses and our partners, our children, our employees, our faculty, our coworkers, our students. And a lot of it is unrealistic because we haven't taken the time to think about the trauma of surviving a global pandemic where people died in ridiculously large numbers that we didn't have a handle on. And oh, by the way, we were isolated away from support systems or in unhealthy systems. We've taken off the masks and we've gone back to routines, but we've never taken a step back to unilaterally process what that experience was like for all of us as human beings who lived through that together because that definitely was a traumatic experience.

Does a traumatic event make you weaker or stronger?

Adam: The danger of how we react to people who might be experiencing trauma, not just from the pandemic, from anything, anything is treating it like it's a matter of toughness…

Nikita: Or, weakness.

Adam: Or, weakness because sometimes the people who are perceivably, the toughest people sometimes have the worst trauma. And maybe the expectation of toughness, I think we learn this more and more, is what's preventing them from recovering. We see this when it comes to combat veterans, emergency responders, first responders of different kinds, people who are exposed to things that it's going to change them whether they like it or not, regardless of whether they're able to deal with it in the moment. You're forever changed by something that's sort of overwhelming you and changes your behaviors in other areas or entirely. It's not a matter of toughness because you don't always have a choice for what trauma does to you. It's not a decision that you're making.

Nikita: It's not a decision that you're making. And even what we view as toughness, really behind the scenes is the ability to compartmentalize and how some people are, I won't even say better at compartmentalizing things than others, because just like with anything, if you pour too much water into a cup, eventually what's going to happen with the water in the cup, it's going to run over. It's going to overflow onto other things. And, so, when you compartmentalize things that are happening in your life, things that have happened in your life, and how you're responding to those things, eventually there will be a need to release. And that release can happen in healthy ways or unhealthy ways. And we've seen examples in society of how it happens in unhealthy ways, in certainly horrific ways. And at the same time, we see ways in which people supplement the need to release alcohol or drugs or other forms of addiction or other forms of unhealthy behavior.

So, it becomes an issue of getting help for it, and help could look different and help could mean different things. Of course, me being a mental health professional, I'm always going to lead by talking to somebody and getting professional health help from a mental health therapist of some type, whether it's a counselor, a social worker, a psychologist, help from somebody who is trained to be able to help you, and then you could supplement the rest of your growth or your change with other ways like life coaches and stuff like that. But when it comes to mental health issues, you need to tap into somebody skilled in working with mental health issues, who understands mental health. Then, you could go to your pastors and people like that, or your clergy or however that looks, whoever your guru is.

How does childhood trauma affect us as adults?

Adam: When you're seeking therapy, you're seeking counseling. We talk about either past trauma or childhood trauma, which are I think common things that people are coping with. And sometimes we're coping with 'em really late or coping with them really late in life. And there's, to me, it seems like the two common things are unpacking it. And then there's also the other thing, which is I'm going to develop tools to alleviate it. What does that look like and how common is that for people that you have come across?

Nikita: It's about survival, and I know that might sound like a cliche, and I keep going back to it, but it really is a truth. Every day we're all trying to survive in our own way, and people who have survived a traumatic experience of some type have either learned to live through it, no longer drives them in the way that it could have or would have had they not addressed it, or if they hadn't come up with a good way to live life through it compared to somebody who hasn't addressed something. The work is unpacking it. So, not necessarily going back to what happened to them as a child, because sometimes people want to address that, sometimes they don't. But really looking at how that experience helped to shape who they are today and looking at what is the impact of that on you being the person that you want to be today and want to be going forward.

So, sometimes it would be easy to scare off people when they think they've got to do this deep work and just dive into all this unresolved stuff because sometimes it's just too painful to bring up. We can only do it in levels. And, so, you respect the level where the person is. So, I'm person-centered in my counseling approach, which means, you know what, Adam, it's your bus. You're the expert in Adam. I'm here to help you work on whatever you want to work on for however you want to work on it, however you want to work on it. If you want to drive your bus off the cliff, that's your right to do it. Just give me a heads up so I could jump off the bus because I don't want to go over the cliff with you. And, so, however, you want to work on whatever your past trauma was, we'll do that. If you decide, “Nope, I don't want to talk about this ever again,” or “I don't want to talk about this anymore,” that's a person's right to do that. And, so, when we think about people who are recovering from a trauma, we have to see it through the lens of them knowing what happened in their life and what they're able to open up for themselves without releasing everything. Look at it like vomiting. And that's how I used to describe it to kids.

Adam: Very pleasant.

Nikita: We have an upset stomach. It's bothering us. We know we want to get rid of it, and history has shown us, that if I throw up, I'm going to feel better. I don't like to throw up. It's nasty, it's messy, it's all these things. But inevitably when we vomit, whatever we are able to get out and get rid of, we're done with it and we go back to feeling better again.

What are signs of unhealed trauma?

Adam: Do you feel that there are a lot of people who are missing signs that there's trauma that they're not dealing with? If I'm carrying around a bunch of kind of unacknowledged trauma that I might benefit from working on, what are some signs? Are there common signs like, "Hey, this might be baggage that I'm holding onto, or it might be a trauma response that I'm having that I'm not recognizing?" Are there common things or is it just wildly different from person to person?

Nikita: There is some variance based on people, right? Because we're all different. However, it connects back to how we find ourselves responding to things. I think that's the biggest telltale sign. It could be anything if you watched your parent be abused by their partner because they made the spaghetti wrong, never want to eat spaghetti again as an adult, but here your partner made you this wonderful meal and thought spaghetti is what I'm dope at. So here, let me give this to you. This is my gift to you. And you break down crying, you throw it out the window, you refuse to eat it or you eat it and vomit it with no explanation for why you're having these responses. Then you might want to look for why. Look at why are you responding to that and what's over here that you need to resolve. Otherwise, all your partner is going to know. It's like, "Okay, they didn't like this spaghetti. You could have just said you didn't want spaghetti," right? And, so, we make it about us because we don't know what we're responding to.

Adam: This is something that…

Nikita: It doesn't match…

Adam: Yeah, it doesn't match the thing that I'm reacting to. I'm having, this should be joy, this should be a pleasure. And, instead, it's revulsion or it's fear.

Nikita: I would say irrational more than inappropriate because sometimes a response can be appropriate. If you were sexually assaulted, you could have sex with someone a hundred times, your partner a hundred times, and it's just fantastic 101 times you just not feeling it for whatever reason something's going on. Because you've been intimate 100 times, that person doesn't understand what's going on with 101. Your response could be appropriate for what's triggering you at that time, right? But it may not be rational to that person because of the 100 other times. So, I would stay away from an appropriate response and think more about irrationality.

Adam: And if you're having that response, it might seem irrational to you. Yeah, you might not even know, right? That might be the sign that…

Nikita: That something's going on…

Adam: That something's going on. It's time to figure out what's happening with a trigger.

What is an example of a trauma trigger?

Nikita: The thing about trauma is that it brings with it a lot of moving pieces, and I think we've kind of talked about that and hopefully highlighted that. A good example, and in my mind, I'm like, I think I can share this story because I've gotten his permission before. I observed a welcome home party for one of my family members who was coming home after having spent time in Iraq. He didn't know that his family was preparing this surprise party for him.

He walks into the room, everyone yells, surprise. And the look on his face was one of such anger, which you wouldn't have expected in that scenario. And I don't know how well his spouse and siblings paid attention to his response. I talked about it a little bit later with a friend of mine who had spent time in the military and did work with veterans, and he helped me to understand that you are looking at a person who has had to spend X number of months staying alive by not being surprised only to walk into a room to a bunch of people yelling “Surprise.” Would I say that he had some trauma? Absolutely. Because there is the literature, there's the anecdotal and quantitative literature that talks about the impact of war on veterans, and then we just have the whole history of it. So, it made sense, but it didn't make sense to anyone planning that whole process that perhaps jumping out at him on his first day back home, fresh off the plane, would be a good thing to do.

Adam: And it's hard to assess that stuff, right?

Nikita: And it's hard to assess that.

Adam: Right? We want that person to be able to feel comfortable getting help or want to normalize the idea that we might see them struggle. You can't account for wild a response or how much of a left turn in someone's life. Something like that might be right.

Nikita: You can't account for how wild and you can't account for how silent, because it could be both extremes. It just really depends on the individual and the support around the individuals or lack of support around the individuals that will determine or help determine how they emerge from it. 

How do you show empathy to someone with trauma?

Nikita: Here's another example: In the higher ed environment, we talked a little bit about the COVID piece, but we recruit students from all over the place, internationally and domestically, who come in with a whole range of experiences and a range of experiences around things like war, famine, resources, policing, life, and death. So, we have individuals who may just be 18 but have experienced vicariously more trauma than many of us who have lived to be 40, 50, 60, like they've experienced more trauma in their 18 years than the so-called adults and experts and all these other people. And so how are we taking that into consideration when we're looking at what we consider to be successful behaviors of students?

Are we interpreting a student who may need time to reset differently as disrespect or laziness or lack of qualification to be in college? Not taking into consideration that perhaps this young person might've seen two of their best friends die the summer before they started college, or a family member and a friend, but that was a good year because sophomore year, five of their friends died. So, we never know what someone is bringing with them into any, just as we've been talking about any setting or any given environment. But for us in higher education, those are the types of things that we should be taking into consideration.

Adam: People aren't often villains. Right? And if your trauma is making you behave in a way that makes somebody else uncomfortable, you might not realize you're making them uncomfortable. So, if that person comes to you from a place of empathy, man, they might be doing you a really big service. And how good does it feel to give someone that room to adjust and that room to figure out a way to cope with it within the space that you need them to be successful, right?

Nikita: And instead of thinking about it from a judgmental perspective or from a place of deficit where we say, “Wow, what's wrong with that person?” Ask the question, "What happened in that person's life?" Or "What's going on for that person today?" Those are two totally different responses and two simple questions that will yield different answers. So back to your point about empathy. Absolutely not just trying to understand the place in which that person is coming from and just kind of leaving it right there, but actually engaging in a way where you could potentially gain some information, build a relationship, build rapport, build knowledge as a result of dialogue that will help you best understand your students, your colleagues, whatever the case may be.

How can you reduce the effects of trauma?

Adam: If you're a person who's experiencing trauma or has experienced trauma has an effect in your life, what are some personal steps that you could take to lessen its effects?

Nikita: I think I would say if you're someone who has experienced a traumatic event, and it is still an issue because people can experience trauma and it not be an issue for them, I just want to acknowledge that. But it's still an issue for you, it has resurfaced that's an issue for you, and you're concerned that it might be something triggering. You talk to a mental health professional. That is the number one thing to do. Those are the people who are most equipped to understand what's happening to you. Make getting therapy your number one objective. And when I say therapy, I mean someone who can help you unpack or process wherever you are at that point. I'm not necessarily talking about somebody who's going to prescribe you medication or something like that. Sometimes we think we don't have anybody that we're in this world alone, but we really aren't. So, there are always people that you can talk to depending on where you are. So, if you're in, let's say if you're a high schooler and you're still watching this, who's your favorite teacher that you could talk to about anything or you trust, talk to that person, school counselor. Sometimes they can seem busy or too busy with other things, but those people are trained mental health professionals too. They just have other duties as assigned.

Adam: And at that, I'm going to let us wrap this up. Thank you so much for being with me today. I really appreciate the conversation. I know it was kind of a heavy topic, but I feel really good for having had the conversation with you.

Nikita: Thank you for having me here.

Adam: Awesome. Hopefully, we'll get to talk again soon.

Nikita: Take care.

Adam: Thanks for stopping by The Search Bar. Make sure that you like and subscribe so that you don't have to search for the next episode.

The views and opinions expressed in these episodes are strictly those of the host and guest speaker.