Trauma is not your fault. Period.
“Trauma is not your fault, but healing is your responsibility.”
“Although we can’t always choose what happens to us, we can always choose how we respond.”
I’ve seen these two statements circling around social media and wanted to speak about them, because I’ve thought heavily about them both.
Trauma is not you fault. PERIOD. End of sentence. There is absolutely no “but” necessary. This word, in my opinion, invalidates, minimizes, and places guilt.
Healing is…A PRIVILEGE.
Messy. Possible. Complicated. Painful. Hard. The work of a lifetime. Never ending. Etc.
First of all, what is trauma? During my training for trauma sensitive yoga to become a trauma informed yoga provider, the first thing I learned about trauma was simple.
Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes sense of self, and diminishes ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences.
What I was not given in my training was a list of things considered trauma- because this will vary from one person to the next. Rape is trauma, infertility is trauma, witnessing death is trauma, verbal abuse is trauma, unintentional neglect is trauma, poverty is trauma, rehab is trauma, getting bitten by a dog as a child is trauma, abandonment is trauma, divorce is trauma, chronic illness is trauma. Trauma is ANYTHING that causes the brain to respond to severe distress. Trauma is ANYTHING that is so overwhelming, it causes a person to be unable to cope. Trauma is ANYTHING that robs and destroys a person’s sense of self. Trauma is ANYTHING that makes us feel endangered and helpless.
TRAUMA IS WHAT YOUR BRAIN SAYS IT IS.
The most important job of the brain is to ensure survival- everything else is secondary. As humans our neurological system is wired for survival with nerves and chemicals that connect to our bodies. Also known as the “flight or fight response”, it protects us from danger, then brings us back to equilibrium. However, when something causes this normal nerve and chemical response to get blocked, the brain continues to secrete stress chemicals, while its electrical circuits fire the flight or flight signals, while the body is frozen. As a result, even after the distressing event is over, the brain can continue to send danger signals for the body to fight or flight- even if there is no longer a threat. Our brains have an “alarm system”, aka the amygdala, which is in charge of this response. Here’s the thing- the amygdala does not know the difference between “I’m being chased by a dog” and “I am being assaulted.” Period.
As an example….my nursing background is in Pediatric Intensive Care. Say I have to admit a child to the unit who has suffered a non-accidental trauma- being bashed against a wall repeatedly by a frustrated caregiver. Shit. Awful, right? When I see that child, bloodied, bruised, swollen, and nearly dead- as a human being my response is to become horrified and express my horror. Cry. Yell. Rage. Find out who is responsible. But as a professional, my response is to stabilize the child, take orders from my doctor, and communicate with the family. Be calm. Be collected. Do not cry, do not show emotion. Ignore and push away my own shock in order to provide the best care possible for the child, who will later be declared braindead at the age of 18 months because the babysitter just wanted the child to stop crying and snapped. The alarm system is ignored, and the normal nerve and chemical response is locked so that I as a nurse can function and do my job.
When this blocking happens, physical discomfort and psychological misery follow. Because equilibrium cannot be reached, the nervous system is altered. It’s perception of safety and risk is altered. Look up the term “neuroplasticity”- it is the ability of the brain to change; to be re-wired. Trauma can re-wire the brain negatively, and result in PTSD and multiple other issues. Healing can re-wire the brain and result in new neurological pathways that teach us the world is safe.
Which brings me to this- IS healing ultimately YOUR responsibility?
Maybe. Let me challenge you with this- the tools necessary for healing are a privilege. A PRIVILEGE. Privilege to afford therapy, to have a reliable support system, to loving friends and family, access to food and shelter, and privilege of mental stability. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that I would have long ago taken my own life if it were not for a few certain support people, being ale to afford a psychiatrist, and having the privilege of being ale to take yoga. Can a war veteran who is living on the streets, with no money, family or job, be held responsible for their own healing? Can someone with a mental illness who cannot access medication and treatment because it comes down to paying for that, or paying rent, be told that their brokenness is solely theirs to mend? Can a family taking care of a loved one ridden with cancer or Alzheimer’s, be expected to be whole? Can a parent who loses a child ever really move on?
Maybe. I don’t know. And unless you truly understand the definition, impact, and science of trauma, I do not believe you can make such a blanket statement like “healing is your responsibility.”
Can we truly, ALWAYS, change the way we react?
No. Not always. Not on a chemical, neurological, or biological level. Science says otherwise. We cannot necessarily change and control the way we respond- but I believe we have the ability to contain it. The ABILITY- but not always the tools to do so.
I know that as humans, we are wired to be resilient. And that resiliency can save us from suffering. But I also firmly believe that “pain is pain is PAIN”. There is no hierarchy, no ranking, no better than or worse off on a neurological level when it comes to trauma.
My message to you is this- before you repose an article on Facebook enthusiastically agreeing that “but healing is your responsibility”…inform yourself. Before you teach your children that they can control how they react…read about child psychology. Learn about trauma. Hell, I’ll mail you the books from my training so you can argue with science.
We are a clickbait society. We LOVE articles that tie up someone else’s opinions in powerful quotes. We LOVE to use something that has gone viral to tell others about how they should feel because we cannot be bothered to form our own opinions- because maybe we fear our own capacity for compassion and greatness. Its is too hard to be the voice of disagreement and resistance if you’re not behind a screen. We love to be right; to be seen as whole and having it all together, all the while insisting that social media is a highlight reel. We love to avoid real, authentic conversations and sit with someone in their pain. It makes us uncomfortable.
In his book, “The Body Keeps the Score”, Bessel Van Der Kolk, one of the world’s leading researchers and specialists in trauma, says this: “People can learn to control and change their behavior, it only if they feel safe enough to experiment with new solutions. The body keeps the score: if trauma is encoded in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching sensations, then our first priority is to help people move out of their fight or flight states, reorganize their perception of danger, and manage relationships.” Much of my reasoning behind this post comes from his books and the training I received.
Life hurts. But despite the hurt, we become. Wether we “heal” or not, we become. In my humble opinion, throw out that term- healing. YOUR SOUL IS NOT AN OBJECT THAT REQUIRES A BANDAID. Your soul is not an object to be fixed. Who gets to decide what your healing is? Who said you have to heal in order to live your best life? Who said you need turn into someone else to be the best version of yourself?
Articles on the internet- that’s who. Viral, thoughtless posts written to sound pretty- and they do! Here is the hard truth- trauma does not always make sense. Healing cannot be summed up in a single statement because there is no straight path there, and sometimes not even an end. Trauma cannot always be reconciled. The victim does not always become the hero, love does not always save us, and pain does not always end. Trauma changes brain development. And unless someone who has undergone trauma is aware of alternatives, it is not fair to say “healing is your responsibility”. Life is simply not that black and white.