Puzzling Trauma: The issues in our tissues

Where you come from affects where you go; and what sits unresolved in your past influences your present. We all have issues in our tissues.

As a resilience specialist, my job is to listen to my client’s present-day setbacks and find the connection points between childhood beliefs and adult behaviors. Basically, I piece together a timeline puzzle. During our collaboration, as the picture of their resilience story comes into view, their behavior patterns emerge like a giant data set leading us back to the source.

After years of puzzling, I have learned that trauma stories are often the corner pieces of their puzzle, which bind my clients to their unconscious, repetitive, and self-limiting behaviors. Said differently, I have learned that past trauma tells an epic story of their present-day experience. Trauma tells the story of your lived experience too. And these past stories have a great effect on your present-day wellbeing.

Where you come from affects where you go; and what sits unresolved in your past influences your present. We all have issues in our tissues. Because all humans experience trauma, it’s important to understand what trauma is and how it impacts our wellbeing.

Trauma is defined as an experience that overwhelms one’s capacity to adapt well. While we all experience trauma throughout our life, not all trauma is the same. We use the word trauma most often for big T events like abuse, addiction, divorce, assault, neglect, or loss. Yet, when we only categorize trauma as big T, we neglect to register and acknowledge the more common human experience with little T trauma. On the path to healing, it’s important to differentiate between these two categories.

Big T vs. Little T

Big T trauma poses a direct threat to one’s very existence: A child is neglected. A woman is abused. Parents divorce. A sudden terminal illness takes a loved one.

Small T trauma does not pose a threat to one’s existence, but is nonetheless a direct experience: When a mother weighs her adolescent daughter each morning to see if she has gained weight. When a child is excluded from social groups in school. When a teacher tells a student not to waste time on their artistic dreams. When a woman finds out she cannot get pregnant.

Even though small T trauma does not threaten one’s existence, the experience is difficult to adapt to; and the effects of small T experiences build up over time and distort the picture in the puzzle. Many of us experience big T and small T trauma. All of us experience repetitive small T trauma. Let me make this point clear, no one escapes trauma.

We all have issues in our tissues.

Direct vs. Indirect

Trauma can also be categorized as direct and indirect. Direct trauma is the primary trauma, or what happens to us. Indirect trauma is the secondary trauma, or what happens because of the direct trauma. Said differently, when we experience a direct trauma, we adapt to our primary experience, and this adaptation creates our indirect trauma.

All humans form adaptations to their direct traumatic experience. This adaptation becomes one’s indirect trauma.

For example, a 7yo girl, whose mother disapprovingly monitors her food intake is experiencing a direct primary experience with repetitive small T trauma. Even if her mother forced a smile on her face each time she saw her daughter load her plate with food, her mother’s tone, body language, and eye movement are all direct primary experiences reinforcing the message that she is not acceptable. The mother’s nonverbal messages are received by the daughter’s central nervous system and registered directly in her cells. Thus, the girl is experiencing daily, small T trauma in her direct experience.

To make sense of the situation, the daughter will adapt to the primary experience with an indirect secondary experience such as shame, black and white thinking, self-loathing, self-doubt, avoidance, or control. This adaptation might sound like, “Either my mother does not love me as I am. Or I don’t love me as I am.” To survive, her mind will choose the latter — I don’t love me as I am. Why?

Because children are hard wired to need a caretaker for survival. Thus, it’s too painful or inconceivable that her mother cannot love her, therefore, her brain will internalize the blame. This may sound like, “If I was prettier and thinner, I would be loved.”

This form of inner self talk then becomes the indirect trauma that the daughter uses to adapt to her direct experience with her mother’s judgment. Over time this soundtrack plays on repeat in her head — If I was prettier and thinner… I would be loved by him… I would be loved by them… I would be loved by me. She grows up without the understanding of how to love herself. Rather, she grows up reinforcing the adaptation.

Thus, self-loathing becomes her adaptation — her indirect, secondary trauma. Now, when the daughter looks in the mirror she only sees what she hates about herself.

Fast forward five years, and her self-loathing becomes an eating disorder. Fast forward fifteen years, through therapy she begins to form a coherent narrative about her mother’s verbal abuse in childhood. This might sound like, “When I was seven my mother monitored my food intake, and as I result I became bulimic.”

The daughter can name her primary direct experience, yet cannot connect the dots to her adaptation and why she compares herself to others, fears peer feedback, fears failure, doesn’t take risks, why she cannot set boundaries with her friends, or why she is often taken over with ruminating thoughts about her behavior, and cannot quiet her inner critic.

What she doesn’t understand is how she adapted to her primary direct experience, and how that adaptation is affecting her present-day behaviors. Her trauma remains unresolved in her nervous system.

Unresolved Trauma vs Resolved Trauma

Unresolved trauma means that the adaptation to negative experiences continue to negatively impact one’s life and well-being. The impact of unresolved trauma is a corrosion of vitality and wellbeing. Unresolved trauma can lead to self-loathing, people pleasing, perfecting, anxiety, an inability to regulate emotion, addiction, phobias, depression, inability to maintain healthy bi-directional relationships, scarcity, decision fatigue or paralysis, compulsions, shame, and autoimmunity just to name a few.

Resolved trauma means that an individual can: (1) make sense of primary and secondary experiences, (2) create a coherent narrative, (3) reframe how adaptations to negative experiences can positively impact life and well-being, (4) identify and question limiting beliefs, (5) regulate emotions, and (6) integrate one’s central nervous system.

The issues in our tissues is like a fingerprint — individually unique. Thus, each puzzle has its own complex pattern. The interior pieces reflect how one interprets and responds to their environment. And the corner pieces tell the story of one’s trauma. All people are puzzles. No two puzzles are alike. And everyone has corner pieces. The difference among us is that some have resolved the trauma and can look at the whole puzzle, see the big picture, and make sense of the pattern.


Originally published at lesliesantos.com.