What Makes an Event Traumatizing?

It’s a tough question, because we love to use hyperbole in order to bring emphasis to something. For example, a student may say it was traumatizing to come into class and suddenly be expected to take a pop quiz. A mom may say she was traumatized by having to stand in a long line at the store while her child hollered. Can these things traumatize us? Possibly. Just about any negative life circumstance can produce trauma, but we have to be careful with how we talk about it. We should never make light of it.

At the core of traumatization is helplessness. Any event, series of events or season of life can produce a sense of helplessness. When this occurs, we feel backed into a corner. We feel that we’ve lost our sense of dominion. “Dominion” is the word used to describe the gift God gave to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He commanded them to be fruitful, to multiply, and to have dominion over every living thing that moves on earth. This is a high calling given to all humans. When we experience traumatization, we sense that our dominion is reduced, even taken away. Not by fault of our own, but because of sin trampling everything in its wake.

So what is helplessness? When your choices have been taken away, or when you’re so paralyzed that you’re unable to make the choices you want to make, you’re experiencing helplessness. At our core, we are not helpless beings. We are not meant to be at the complete mercy of someone or something else. Even babies are given a sense of dominion because they are able to cry out in order to be heard and seen and cared for. But what happens when cries go unnoticed over a period of time? What happens when a person experiences something grievous and has no one safe to ask for help? What happens when an event is so terrifying that the body shuts down and cannot respond by fighting or fleeing? This is helplessness.

Helplessness can occur in a vast number of settings and situations. This is why I cannot tell you through a blog post whether your circumstances were traumatizing. What I can say is that if you feel a strong sense of helplessness and you don’t have the resources to return to a state of dominion within a reasonable time frame, you may become traumatized. Not everyone who experiences a “traumatic event” becomes traumatized. (I use quotation marks because the label “traumatic” is culturally influenced and changes over time.) But let me give you a list of things that can easily be traumatizing:

  • Abuse of all kinds (sexual, physical, emotional, financial, verbal and spiritual)
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Natural disaster
  • Motor vehicle accident
  • Combat exposure
  • Captivity
  • Life-threatening illness or injury
  • Severe human suffering
  • Serious injury, harm or death you caused to someone else

These events may seem obvious to some, but here are some less obvious things that also can be traumatizing:

  • Bullying
  • Racial discrimination
  • Loss of a career or lifetime dream
  • Financial ruin
  • Being stuck somewhere without help
  • Getting lost and not having the resources to find your way
  • Witnessing any of the events in the first list
  • Listening to stories of trauma from others (as happens for counselors and other helping professionals)
  • Rescue work (such as firefighters, police officers, game wardens, park rangers, etc.)

Have any of these things happened to you? Did you feel a sense of absolute helplessness? Did your body respond by becoming numb, by heart palpitations, by shortness of breath and/or severe muscle tension? Did you have anyone you could safely tell about the event?

Finally, it’s important to note that some people experience terrible events but somehow do not develop traumatization. In my next post, I’ll explore with you how to learn whether your negative life events may have been traumatizing. Stay tuned, and please share this post with anyone you think may be helped by it.

I’d also love to receive your questions and comments. This helps me plan future posts, so please send me a reply!

Is Anxiety Rooted in Trauma?

People are talking about anxiety right and left these days. It makes sense – so much is happening, and we don’t know exactly how to handle all the pressures and difficult circumstances coming our way. The word “anxiety” has become something of a buzzword in 2020. What do we mean when we use that word? Is anxiety caused strictly by stressful external circumstances? Why do some people seem so even-keeled, while others get bent out of shape over the simplest things?

The answer to whether anxiety is rooted in trauma is not a simple one. I would never want to diagnose anyone over a blog post, but I would like to offer some simple questions and markers that may help you determine what kind of anxiety is plaguing you. At its root, anxiety is defined as a sense of dread that can range from mild to debilitating. But there are different reasons you could be experiencing this kind of dread. Some people dread the future because something horrible has happened in their past, and they’re doing everything they can to keep bad things from happening again. If this is true for you, your anxiety may be rooted in traumatization.

Many people don’t connect their anxiety to traumatic incidents in their past because they’ve never been challenged to do so. Especially in Christian circles, anxiety is seen as something to kill, something to overcome. So we don’t necessarily take the time to be curious enough about our anxious feelings to ask questions about them. But if you’re wondering whether some of your anxiety comes from a wound in your past that hasn’t healed, here are some questions you can ask yourself. I recommend you consider these questions, but then make sure to talk them through with a trusted and wise friend who can help you discern whether there are next steps to take in the process of healing and freedom:

  1. What kinds of people, places or situations do I want to avoid?

    When I experience a situation that leads me toward feelings of anxiety, it’s natural that I may want to avoid that type of situation in the future. For example, if I am forced to make a presentation in class and I get so anxious that I have heart palpitations and shortness of breath, I probably won’t volunteer to be a presenter at a conference. It’s normal (though sometimes not best) to want to avoid what brings anxiety. But those whose anxiety includes a history of trauma will avoid situations, people or places because they evoke strong and visceral sensations that can play tricks on their brains. For example, I may feel anxious about dark alleys. If I enter a dark and empty street and suddenly feel a sense of panic in my entire body, as if I’m back in the dark alley in which I was attacked as a teenager, perhaps that particular situation evokes anxiety because the trauma of being attacked has not yet been healed. I know that’s an extreme example, but even fears of situations like being alone in a room or standing in a small space could be rooted in a memory of something traumatic. So the key is to explore whether avoidance may be rooted in a traumatic memory.

  2. What’s my reaction time when I feel anxious?

    When our anxious feelings are triggered by traumatic memory, it can seem as if the stimulus evokes an immediate reaction that doesn’t allow us to engage our logical minds. The fear response is a God-given function of the brain that is meant to help keep us alive in a dangerous and life-threatening situation. It’s possible that your brain carries “procedural memory” of something that was dangerous, which is stored in a different way than most memories. If your brain carries a procedural memory that tells your body to immediately react because a threat is present, you will go into “flight/fight/freeze” response without even realizing why. It will also sometimes seem silly to you, as if you shouldn’t be so keyed-up about a perceived threat, but your reaction is strong and quick. Sometimes this type of reaction happens because your body is being triggered by a stimulus that reminds your brain of a traumatic memory.

  3. What thoughts are connected to the feeling of anxiety when it occurs?

    A lot of people have trouble putting thoughts next to their feelings. When I ask what they’re thinking in connection to an anxious feeling, they don’t know right off the bat. That’s ok. But I encourage you to be curious about your anxious feelings. Ask yourself what you’re thinking. If your thoughts seem to go to extremes, there’s a possibility that anxiety is being provoked by unhealed trauma. For example, people who have been traumatized may have extreme thoughts such as, “No one is trustworthy,” or “Every place is unsafe.” You can have these thoughts without having been traumatized, but these kinds of extreme thoughts can be categorized as “absolutism,” which is a potential marker of traumatization.

  4. What’s happening in my body when I feel anxious?

    When anxiety hits, we often have bodily responses. Our hands sweat, our hearts race, our muscles tense up. These responses are our bodies’ way of alerting us of anxiety, but they’re also designed to help us either fight or flee in a dangerous situation. But when a threat or a perceived threat has ended, our bodies are supposed to return to a state of equilibrium. Both chronically anxious people and people with unhealed trauma have trouble getting back to that state of calm. People who have been traumatized often perpetuate a state of “hyper-vigilance,” both in their minds and in their bodies. It’s as if they’re waiting for some threat to come around every corner. Because they’re constantly on the lookout for danger, their bodies stay keyed up and have trouble becoming calm. Again, chronic anxiety can also include a constant state of bodily tension, but people with unhealed trauma will often share that they cannot sleep or relax.

Again, you cannot diagnose traumatization from any written source. If your answers to these questions lead you to believe you may have unhealed trauma, talk with a trusted friend or counselor. We are NEVER meant to walk through difficult things alone. The most constant factor in a person’s healing is the presence of a safe and compassionate person.