What is Trauma?

As terrible as trauma can be, it opens you to some sacred knowledge.

~ Kenneth Robinson

Yesterday I asked Kenneth to help me understand trauma better. Recently I’d said to my teacher that trauma isn’t just a feeling, but then was unable to say more than that — and I want to be able to explain it better in the future. Here’s what Kenneth said.

  • Trauma is a complex of things, including:
    • emotions;
    • the body;
    • flashbacks, which are not memories, but rather an experience of revisiting that moment (like it’s happening now).
  • Part of what makes it trauma is that it’s unseen and unacknowledged. And the person gets blamed. So they are isolated in damage and harm.
  • You don’t ever have to be completely free of trauma (if being free of it is even preferable [which he clearly questions]).

Later I brought up the diagram that looks like a target that goes from Safe to Stretch to Overwhelm. The Compassion Institute used used a version of it in an online class I took, with the following instructions:

A diagram that looks like a 3-ring target. The center is Comfort & Safety, middle Challenge/Stretch, outer OverwhelmIf we always stay in the inner circle of comfort and safety, growth becomes impossible. If we move beyond challenge into overwhelm, growth is also impossible. When there is trauma or overwhelm, we need to stay within the comfort circle. Please adjust your level of participation accordingly.

I asked Kenneth if trauma was beyond overwhelm and he said, “It’s definitely a continuum.” Then he talked about the “Window of Tolerance” and being flooded vs. being present.

Here’s an explanation of the “Window of Tolerance.” I believe it’s reasonable to substitute “meditation student” for “client.”

The window of tolerance is a concept originally developed by Dr. Dan Siegel, MD, to describe the optimal zone of “arousal” for a person to function in everyday life. When a person is operating within this zone or window, they can effectively manage and cope with their emotions.

For clients who have experienced trauma, it is often difficult to regulate emotions and the zone of arousal where they can function effectively becomes quite narrow.

When a client is traumatized, it can be especially difficult for them to stay grounded in the present because the past is more vivid and intrusive. Someone constantly living in their past trauma is primed to detect threat — and enter into that state of defense. That means they generally have a very narrow window of tolerance.

The stress of a traumatic memory or trigger may cause them to be pushed out of their window of tolerance. Even seemingly minor stressors can cause a client to dissociate, get angry, or feel anxious – leading to states of hyperarousal or hypoarousal.

~ National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine