what is trauma?

Handbook frontcover-Version5Here is an extract from my forthcoming book: becoming your true self: a handbook for the journey from trauma to healthy autonomy, due for publication in November, published by Green Balloon Publishing. Drawings by Karen McMillan.

what is trauma?

a definition

The first step on our journey is to understand exactly what trauma is. We tend to use the word loosely, but if we really want to work with our trauma we need to know precisely what it is. I have four key words that define trauma:

overwhelm – the situation is experienced as completely overwhelming.

helplessness – our experience is of extreme utter helplessness.

life-threat – we fear that we may not survive the situation; we feel our continued existence is threatened.

splitting – the psyche splits off the devastating experience as a last ditch survival attempt.

Any event that fulfils all of these criteria in the experience of the victim is a trauma. Yes, I use the word ‘victim’, because at the time of the trauma situation that is what we were. That is the true meaning of the word ‘victim’.

understanding the difference between ‘high stress’ and ‘trauma

It is important for our purposes of understanding trauma to know the difference between a Trauma1-coloured2situation that is a ‘high stress’ situation and one that constitutes a trauma.

A situation becomes a trauma when our resources for managing stress fail. What do I mean by this? Well, we manage stress by a hypermobilisation of the body’s resources, a highly active state that involves massive production of stress hormones, increased heart-rate, increased energy availability (this accounts for the extraordinary feats of strength some people are capable of in such situations). The higher the stress, the higher the mobilisation. This prepares us for extreme action that may be necessary to save us, most commonly termed ‘fight or flight’.

The problem is that we can only function at such a highly mobilised state for a short while; the stress on the physiological and psychological systems is very great, and were it to continue, such a hyper-mobilised state would in the end become a danger to our life: quite simply, our heart would fail. At some point before this the psychosomatic system (the body/mind) flips, quite suddenly, into a hypo-mobilised state, an extremely low activity state, which has been called ‘tonic immobility’. This is the point at which we enter the trauma state.

In the hyper-mobilised high stress state the natural reaction is fight or flight. We are not completely helpless, we can do something: we can fight or flee. The high energy enables us to do one or the other, but we can’t do both at the same time! Both need large amounts of energy.


In the hypo-mobilised trauma state we are completely helpless, and the body/psyche gives up and flops, becoming limp. It resigns to its fate. The body’s last ditch survival attempt is to withdraw energy and resources back to the centre of the body to try and keep the vital organs going, the heart, lungs, kidneys etc, the parts of ourselves that we cannot live without. This is a situation that is literally about survival, life and death, and everything at this moment focuses on surviving the threat, whatever the cost. The reaction here is known as ‘freeze and fragment’. The freezing is the tonic immobility, the ‘flop’, and the fragmenting is the process whereby the psyche splits off the intolerable experience by dissociating from the present reality, relegating it to the unconscious.

the split self after the trauma

The initial means of splitting the experience off is by dissociation: the mind disconnects from what is happening, and the emotional and psychological experience involved. It is a trance-like state that we can all recognise, an extreme form of ‘zoning out’. In our day-to-day life we may dissociate quite often, sometimes in order to focus on something else, as when people are talking but we want to attend to a particular task. That is a healthy and ordered form of dissociation. In the trauma moment the dissociation is automatic, out of our control, sending the intolerable experience of the trauma to our unconscious. Sometimes the dissociative state is experienced as being separate from the body, outside of oneself, sometimes suspended above oneself.

At this point there emerges a new self, the surviving self. The surviving self is totally preoccupied with avoiding the trauma. The initial characteristic of the surviving self is this dissociative trance-like state, but over the hours, days, weeks and months after the trauma the surviving self gets to work to develop strategies that guarantee the trauma experience stays out of our awareness. These strategies over time become increasingly sophisticated, subtle and organised, forming many everyday activities and actions that, in the end, we come to think of as who we are, our identity or personality. We mistake this ‘self’ for our real self.

The split of the psyche becomes increasingly structured and fixed. Here is a diagram representing the split structure of the self after a trauma has happened:


As you can see, there are three parts to the split, and in order to help you recognise them I will give here some characteristics of each.

Self part Function Characteristics
Trauma Self Holds the trauma memory, experience and feelings
  • Is frozen at the time of the trauma
  • Constantly seeks opportunities to surface into consciousness, to complete itself by expression
Surviving Self Guards and maintains the boundaries of the splits.Develops increasingly complex strategies to do so.In later situations of re-traumatisation, if current strategies are insufficient and fail, will develop further splits
  • Avoids situations that might re-trigger the trauma
  • Easily dissociates
  • Distracts
  • Seeks to control the environment, others and self
  • Seeks compensation for lack of joy and pleasant experiences, eg with drugs, alcohol, sex, work
  • Cannot make good relationships
  • Does not make clear and good choices & decisions
  • Lacks clarity
  • Lacks empathy
  • Creates and maintains illusions and delusions such as “everything is fine, there is no problem” or “my childhood was perfectly happy”.
  • Is often confused
  • Often suffers from inexplicable feelings of shame and guilt
Healthy Self Yearns for wholeness (integration of splits)Knows something is amissTries to healSeeks help
  • Can think clearly
  • Seeks truth, honesty and reality
  • Makes good choices and decisions
  • Can make good connections and relationships
  • Is self-responsible and innately ethical
  • Sexual desires and behaviour are appropriate
  • Has good memory of past
  • Is confident and self-assured
  • Feelings of guilt and shame are situation appropriate

Fig. 4, characteristics of the split parts

After the trauma

  • we can still access our healthy self, when we feel safe
  • when our trauma is re-triggered, our surviving self takes over
  • the traumatised self is frozen in time, and continually looks for opportunity for expression and ‘completion’ (re-triggering)

more on the surviving self

While on one level the actions and attitudes of our surviving self help us to continue our daily life, at times its activities can leave us feeling perplexed and confused about ourselves. Think of a time when something happened and you acted in a way that, afterwards, you couldn’t understand, it was so alien from the person that you like to think you are. You ‘lost the plot’ before you could think; you lost control of yourself in a tense situation; you reacted in a way that is way beyond what you would have liked to have done. These are all indications that your surviving self has been activated because your unresolved trauma was triggered.

Situations that may re-trigger our trauma:

  • any situation where we feel overwhelmed or helpless.
  • any situation that may be similar to the original trauma situation (which we may not know).
  • any sensory stimulus (smell, sound, image, taste, touch) that may be similar to that of the original trauma situation.
  • any situation that involves emotions: the psyche cannot distinguish between the emotions we want to feel and the unresolved trauma emotions. Once the door is opened to feeling any emotion, such as love, empathy or fear, all the other emotions crowd up together attempting to gain access to consciousness. Thus ‘love’ can become confused with terror, resulting for example in a form of mildly (or not so mildly) suppressed panic or anxiety in intimate situations.

Alright, so let’s look at different types of trauma so that we can understand which types of trauma are likely to affect us in which ways.

different types of trauma

There are basically two main categories of trauma:

  • natural events
  • relational traumas

natural events

These are events such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes etc. They are the kinds of traumas that we find the easiest to assimilate and recover from. We know that no one is to blame, that these events are part of living on our planet, and we often feel a sense of connection and companionship with others similarly afflicted, and this helps.

relational trauma

By this I mean traumas that are to do with one’s relationship with other human beings. These are more difficult for us to assimilate, and the ease with which we can do this depends on two main criteria:

  • intention: whether what is perpetrated is perceived as intentional (harm is intended) or accidental (harm is not intended). Intentional harm usually has a more devastating impact
  • relationship: whether the ‘perpetrator’ is a stranger, or someone we know, such as a friend, work colleague or neighbour, or an intimate bonded person such as our partner, mother, father or sibling. The closer the bonded relationship, the more shocking and devastating the effect

Keeping these criteria in mind there are several types of trauma:

  • existential threat: this covers the natural events category cited above, and the relational category, for example: accidents, attacks, rape, attempted murder, muggings, terrorism, torture. All these relational events are affected by the intention criteria, i.e. whether we perceive the action as intentional or not.
  • loss: trauma of loss is a relational trauma. The severity of loss trauma is usually affected by how close the bond is, the nature of the relationship and how shocking/unexpected the loss is. The most severe losses are likely to be the death or otherwise loss of a mother to a young child, the loss of a child for the parents, the loss of a partner when young, the loss of children and siblings in combat. The primary trauma emotion is grief, but may also include a sense of life-threat: “how can I go on without…”
  • symbiotic trauma: this is the most difficult, serious, far-reaching and common form of traumatisation. It is a trauma of the very early attachment phase of life, the time when the infant is entirely dependent on his symbiotic relationship with his mother, and this kind of trauma is due to the mother having suffered a trauma herself, and so being emotionally unavailable to the child. We will look at this trauma in greater depth a bit later
  • birth trauma: often confused in the unconscious mind with symbiotic trauma, this is where the birth itself is a trauma for mother and/or child.
  • bonding system trauma: this is a family (bonded) system that is severely traumatised over several or many generations, usually originating in some act perpetrated within the family that goes against social and collective morality, for example incest, violence, sexual abuse, murder (in the past infanticide was not uncommon, and abortion for some feels like and is seen as murder). This family system suppresses the trauma, attempting to avoid the pain and distress, at the same time as repeating some form of the traumatising behaviour from one generation to the next. The predominant dynamics of this system are perpetrator/victim dynamics, where victims become perpetrators, and perpetrators deny the pain of their victimhood by performing harmful acts on others in the family, or on themselves. Self-destructive behaviour is the internalisation of the perpetrator/victim dynamics. In such a family it is impossible to avoid the perpetrator/victim dynamics. Any family that enacts abusive behaviour towards other family members is likely to be a traumatised bonded system, where abuse is confused with safety, and the only ‘security’ known by the child is the abusive culture of the family. It goes without saying that everyone in a traumatised bonding system will have suffered a symbiotic trauma because all mother’s and fathers are traumatised and emotionally unavailable to their child.

The first two types (existential and loss) are fairly self-explanatory. The one that we are going to particularly focus on is symbiotic trauma. The reason is that since symbiotic trauma happens at the very beginning of life, it is pre-intellectual memory, and so unconscious and unknown. But as the first trauma of our life, if it happened, it has a profound impact on our ability to become an autonomous individual, and on our ability to manage and assimilate later events that may potentially be traumatic. All later traumas are in part a re-traumatisation of this original trauma.

This is an extract from my forthcoming book: becoming your true self: a handbook for the journey from trauma to healthy autonomy, due for publication in October, published by Green Balloon Publishing.


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