What is Trauma?

I used to think that trauma was reserved for the really big, overwhelming events in a person’s life. Car crashes, sudden deaths, natural disasters, and severe physical abuse came to mind.

But Dr. Peter Levine, who has written extensively on the subject of trauma, its origin and its effect on the body, and whose background is in medical biophysics, stress, and psychology, says that trauma extends to seemingly everyday experiences, especially when it comes to child trauma.

Whether you are an educator, a therapist, a parent, or another professional working with children, it is imperative that you understand not only the signs of trauma, but what happens in the body when a child experiences a traumatic event. With this understanding, you will become a vital resource for a child who has a history of trauma as well as for the child who has recently experienced a difficult event and needs a caregiver to help her process and recover.

Trauma occurs when a child or adult is, as Levine writes in his book Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes, “dealt a blow greater than could be tolerated” (2007, p. 40). I like this description because it leaves space for acknowledgement that a blow, such as a fall from a bicycle, may be too much for one child to tolerate while another child may recover from the fall with no sign of trauma. Trauma is not defined by the particular event that occurred, but rather by what happens in the nervous system in response to an event.

When a person experiences a single, traumatic experience, her body goes into what you might have heard called the fight or flight mode. In fight or flight mode rational thought and planning go offline. The instinctual, “reptilian,” brain overrides all other brain functions and we experience an adrenaline rush, racing heart, and “more than twenty other physiological responses designed to prepare us to defend and protect ourselves” (Levine, p. 5). Our pupils might dilate, our muscles might get ready to run, or they may collapse, too overwhelmed to flee.

Now we (children AND adults) might be afraid of all these feelings if we don’t know what their purpose is. I know I certainly felt fear when I first experienced an adrenaline rush and found myself shaking, sweating, and feeling sick to my stomach.

As you might have guessed, children are especially vulnerable to trauma—not only are they more easily overpowered in a situation of abuse, but they are also not as equipped with physical capacities and rational faculties to deal with difficult or frightening situations. Imagine being unable to verbalize the crazy sensations you are feeling! And if you are unable to move or escape during the trauma (for example when a toddler is bowled over by a large dog, or a child experiences molestation or rape), the child’s body may “give up” and simply go limp (like the possum who, when frightened, plays “dead” in an attempt to survive).

Levine calls this the Immobility Response. When the body responds in this way, stress response hormones are still pumping, creating an energy that must be released. And it is the child’s caregivers who have the most power in helping this energy get released in a way that can prevent or heal trauma.

Giving Ourselves the “Okay” to Process the Experience

I recently witnessed an example of the difficulty that we all have in supporting an overwhelmed child. Following her witness of a violent exchange between her parents, a nine-year-old child who I knew fairly well ran to me for comfort. As soon as I wrapped her in a hug, she began to sob and shake. A neighbor rushed over, saying in a loud voice, “don’t cry! It’s okay! Calm down!” This woman seems terrified of this child’s response! I thought. Remembering Levine’s work with child trauma, I took a deep breath, and said in a reassuring voice “It’s okay. It’s good to cry. And your arms are shaking, too—that’s normal, let it happen.” I noticed her teeth chattering and goose bumps rising on her arms. “would you like a sweater?” I asked. She nodded and accepted my sweater. Though she continued to cry off and on for the next hour as she verbally processed the event, I noticed her eyes become brighter and her words more clear. This didn’t mean that she wasn’t affected by the traumatic experience, but my hope was that she would be able to process it in a healthy way and feel empowered to continue to heal.

It seems that when we do not allow ourselves to go through the natural resolution to overwhelming experiences, our bodies and minds get “stuck” holding on to the remnants of the experience. As adults we might have an unexplainable aversion to new, exciting experiences if we fell off a bike the first time we tried to ride it. Or we may have unexplainable neck pain for years following a car crash. In order to prevent children from remaining “stuck” following a trauma, caregivers play an important role.

Answers from the Animal Kingdom

I find it helpful to understand what exactly happens in the body and mind when it is traumatized. Peter Levine looks first to animals for answers, asking why animals in the wild do not show symptoms of trauma, when they encounter death and near-death experiences much more often than humans. What do they have that helps them cope so well with, say, previous experiences of being chased by a cheetah? Peter Levine observed the physical changes that animals underwent following a life-threatening experience (such as being chased by a cheetah). Following the fight, flight, or freeze response, which humans also go through under threat, Levine observed that animals would go through a process of physical shaking and trembling while taking deep, calming breaths. “The animals literally ‘shake off’ the residual energy through trembling, rapid eye movements, shaking, panting and completing motor movements,” Levine writes (2007, p. 13).Levine discovered that young animals would sometimes “play out” the life threatening experience by reenacting a chase or by wrestling with each other. During these re-enactments the animals would allow themselves to escape the predator. Levine notes that there is a natural satisfaction that comes from “carrying [the body’s] instinctive movements through to completion” (p. 291).Humans, like animals, need to pay attention to this basic need, allowing themselves to process a difficult experience. It seems that humans have bypassed the “shaking off” stage that should naturally occur following a scary experience.

In the case of the nine-year-old girl, she was given a safe space and an attentive caregiving figure to help her play out her experience both verbally and physically. In addition to her verbal processing, she continuously threw a soccer ball at the wall of the house. She seemed to benefit from letting her body get out the excess energy that had been pent up during her observation of the violent exchange. Perhaps she had wanted to strike out to defend one of her parents, but felt too small. In any case, as a child she had experienced a situation too scary and too confusing for her body to cope with, and needed a safe place to allow her body and mind to do what felt natural.

I write this post with the hope that by recognizing the signs that a person has been overwhelmed and by understanding the biological underpinnings of these signs, we can offer a safe place for children to work through scary and difficult experiences. I will follow up this post with a counterpart describing ways that we can recognize signs that a child has been traumatized by an event in the past, and how to provide a place for her to finally work through that experience.