Trauma is an emotional response to events or circumstances that create more stress and/or pain than we are able to cope with. Consequently our survival systems are activated, which can leave our nervous systems overly sensitised and on alert for threat or danger within our environment. We can be traumatised by: one-off accidents and attacks; physical, psychological or sexual abuse; bereavement, abandonment, neglect and/or conflict; the lack of a relationally attuned parent as we were growing up.
Beyond having an awareness of our personal history, what might indicate we have been impacted by traumatic experience? There is an interesting article – Daniela F. Sieff (2017), Trauma Worlds and the Wisdom of Marion Woodman, Psychological Perspectives 60(2) pp.170-185 – which helpfully identifies three internal trauma worlds that can be created as a part of our survival response to traumatic experience. The nature of these worlds are:
If feelings of fear, disconnection or shame colour or dominate our experience, we may be living with the legacy of developmental, relational and/or incident-related trauma. We might also think of trauma worlds as territories within a wider internal landscape, which we move in and out of, and so do not inhabit at all times. We can feel resourced and well for varying amounts of time, but then become activated or 'triggered' (sometimes unknowingly or by the most subtle of cues, for example, the way another person looks at or speaks to us) and we find ourselves inhabiting one or more of our trauma-related territories.
It can be helpful to think of traumatic history creating internal territories because it serves to remind us we are more than just our symptoms and/or our reactivity. We do not have to be wholly identified with the impact and consequence of traumatic experience; herein lies the possibility of making a subtle but important shift away from completely identifying with our experience of self or ‘I’ ("I am unlovable" or our "I am anxious"), towards experiencing self as an ever-changing and fluid process. Making this shift strengthens our observing ego or witness-consciousness and supports our capacity to notice our trauma worlds beginning to spin, to be aware as we fall into the black hole of our shame, and to be mindful when we experience 'other' through the veil of our own fear.
How might therapy support our discovering more choice and freedom if/when we find ourselves dwelling in trauma-related territories? Let’s look at each territory in turn.
By establishing resource and creating space around our reactivity, anxiety or fear, by coming to allow, know and see ourselves more clearly within an attuned relationship, and by relaxing our defences against feelings of anger, pain, shame and vulnerability we may come to find an easier way of being. Our trauma territories will remain a part of us, familiar places we will inevitably revisit, but in a way that enables us to take greater responsibility for ourselves within them, resting in a knowledge they were borne out of our instinct to survive.