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  • Writer's pictureSubham Kumar Paul

A Deep Dive into Understanding Trauma

The first question we need to ask is why are we diving into trauma. Because, trauma manifests as so many problems. And it’s the kind of thing where trauma is like a whole brain or whole person affect. And so you can’t slice it up into one piece. Because trauma sort of affects every aspect of who we are, how our brain functions, how we form relationships. So it’s the one topic that is very hard for me to try to chop up into pieces.

What does this mean for you?

What this means for you is that a lot of what I am going to teach today may not fit right at the beginning because what I am trying to do is paint a picture of how trauma affects a human being. And so I ask you to bear with me and stay through to the end and hopefully what we can do is help things click.

What is trauma and how does it manifest?

And this is where, in my experience as a psychologist,’s. trauma is the great chameleon of mental illness’ And what do we mean by that?

That means that trauma looks like all kinds of other stuff. So what I have sort of found working with people over and over and over again is that they come in with a particular problem like a lack of motivation or even things like, “I keep on making the same mistake over and over again.” Or “I have chronic depression” and it turns out even things like addictions. All of these are trauma mascareding as something else. And this may sound kind of surprising but lets actually look at some of the manifestations of trauma.

Trauma is the great chameleon

And what this means is that trauma looks like other things. Here is a list of things that trauma mascaraides as

Chronic Depression. So what does this mean? This means that some people out there who say, “I have been depressed my whole life.” So in clinical psychology, we understand that mood disorders, major depressive disorders and bipolar disorders are episodic so they come and go. But there are some people put there who have been depressed their whole life. Ok, And it turns out this is more likely to be due to something like trauma. There is also other interesting evidence to support this. For example, there was recently a meta-analysis that came out that challenged or made a very strong argument that depression is not caused by serotonin imbalance in the brain. And if you ask them, “Ok, if it is not caused by that, what is it caused by?” And they basically said trauma. Ol. So if you been depressed your whole life or for extended periods of time, could be trauma-related.

Second thing, impulsivity or a lack of unifying direction. And how are these two things related? “Well, I live my life kind of like in an impulsive way, so I don’t have any sort of direction I just kind of do what I feel like, in the moment.” Sounds familiar? Ol.

Next stuff, Vulnerability to repeated mistakes

What does that mean? This means you make the same damn mistakes over and over again. Sound familiar? Turns out that there is data that it is related to trauma.

The inability to take risks or afford to take risks.

Turns out, related to trauma.

Being a people pleaser. “ I am a people pleaser. I don’t know how to stop.” Turns out could be related to trauma.

This is another one, ok. Really important one. Something called the ‘Paralysis of Initiation’. What does this mean? This means that sometimes we can’t bring ourselves to start stuff, we essentially live life in a reactive manner. ”If something happens to me then I can respond to it. If. I have some sort of external stimulus, I can act but I can’t initiate things on my own. Turns out, it is related to trauma.

No 7. Can’t moderate relationships. What do you mean by this? Can’t engage in moderate relationships. “So the relationships I engage in are super extreme.” So it’s like, ” Either we are bffs or we are enemies or I am a doormat and this person treats me like however they want me to. I always call them, they don’t call me.” Right? It’s like there is no balance in relationships, ok?

Next thing. Really, really, really common, is, traumatic problems. What does this mean? That means problems with your body. And then you may say, “Subham, if you have problems with your body, isn’t that a medical illness?” Sort of. So if there is a diagnosis of a medical illness. Then it is a diagnosable medical illness. If you do something like a biopsy and you have inflammatory bowel disease and if we understand that there is a pathophysiology to your physical problems, right? If you have an illness, then it’s an illness. But what we see in people with trauma is that they have all kinds of physical problems which if you go to a medical doctor, they are going to tell you to see a psychiatrist or therapist. These are things like IBS, Chronic fatigue syndrome, Fibromyalgia, POTS, So if there is something weird going on with your body that your doctor is like,”Eh, I don’t know what’s wrong with you.” Chances are, it’s related to trauma.

So if you all are looking at this and saying,” But Subham, this sounds like really common stuff but I thought that trauma was like pretty rare.” Like maybe you are reading this and thinking like, “ Wait a second, I wasn’t abused or anything like that” or maybe fortunately you werem't “but this sounds like common stuff that everyone deals with.” And you are correct. This is really common stuff that everyone deals with and it turns out that it is related to trauma.

So let’s do a quick analysis of some statistics, ok?

So remember when I said that major depressive disorders may not be caused by serotonin imbalance? Well, it could be related to Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACS. The percentage of the population that has had ACS could be up to 60%. Now what we have sort of discovered about trauma is that there are things called Post-traumatic stress disorder which requires you to have like 5 out of 9 of these very discreet things, like hypervigilance and reexperiencing nightmares and stuff like that. But it turns out that the mechanisms of trauma like all of us basically have some kind of traumatic experience in life, right? Because our parents were not perfect. Schools are not perfect. Kids are not perfect. And as we have this kind of traumatic experience, we don’t have to have 5 out of 9. It can manifest as 1 out of 9, even if you are not diagnosed with a trauma-related illness because your function is not impaired. You can have this common crap and you can have 2 out of them and it turns out that we understand the mechanism of this stuff related to trauma. Trauma is sort of an illness and it's so common because trauma is not a pathology of the brain or the mind. It is a normal adaptation to a traumatic circumstance or experience.

So this is something we have to understand. When we look at mental illness, we assume that mental illness is something in the mind that is not working the way it is supposed to. It’s a pathology. So if you look at like autoimmune illness, ok. So this is when our immune system attacks us. That is not what the immune system was designed for. The immune system was designed to attack things that are not us, ok? So this is what we call a pathology, it's a part of my body that is malfunctioning. When we look at something like, let's say, bipolar disorder. We look at a manic episode in bipolar disorder or psychosis, right? So in a manic episode, we don’t sleep and we hallucinate. So the brain is not supposed to not sleep. It’s a normal thing to sleep every day. It is also a normal thing for the things you see to actually be there, Right? Like our eyes are supposed to perceive things that are there, not things that are made up. Bipolar disorder is a pathology, it's a malfunction of the brain. But trauma is different. Trauma is not a malfunction. It is an adaptation to a circumstance, ok? So this is part of the other reason why it's so common and it can camouflage as many different things because really what trauma is, is our brain’s attempt or our whole body’s being’s attempt to deal with crappy circumstances. It’s a survival mechanism, right? It’s an adaptation. This is something that really needs to be understood.

So if you have some kind of trauma and you are kind of screwed up as a result, you are not actually screwed up and this is why there is a lot of hope for people with trauma. Even though their problems seem really, really insurmountable, it is actually very surmountable because there is nothing actually busted with you. It’s just your body or brain’s attempt to adapt to a bad circumstance, ok. So the circuitry actually works and we will get into that. Alright?

So what is like the mechanism through which a mind adapts to stuff? This is where I am going to draw a little bit from Eastern psychology because I think they explain it really really well. So as we go through life, we have experiences. So something happens out there. And if say, someone, I am at the playground and someone throws a ball at the back of my head and it hits me. So there is some kind of sensory experiences that happen, there are emotions that come with that sensory experience because what is an emotion? An emotion is a very very rapid way to present information to my mind. So I don’t have time for analysis so instead what my mind is going to do is going to make me feel angry. And anger is a way that I know how to respond rapidly in a situation. So anger is like when we don’t have time to sit down and think about what’s going on, our body has these scripts that its like,”Ok, activate anger” Now that we are activating anger like I know how to respond immediately within the situation. So anytime there are experiences, there are emotions that come with those experiences. Then what happens is those emotions either get processed and digested properly or they don’t. And if they don’t get processed and digested properly, they sink into us. Then what happens is if we face that circumstance again, like we see the kid who threw the ball then those emotions arise back up. So they come back up. And now all that has to happen is I have to see the kid and I feel pissed off even if nothing has happened.

So our mind stores that emotion, recognises some kind of pattern, the emotions arise again and this is a trigger, ok?

Now as we go into the science of trauma. What we kind of discover is that there are 5 major domains that trauma affects within a person.

The first thing it affects, is our Affect which is our emotions. So it changes the way we relate to our emotions. And specifically, it does a lot of stuff with anger and also self-destructive behaviour. You may wonder, “Wait, what does that have to do with emotions?” Well if you think about a lot of self-destructive behaviours we engage in, everything from cutting or self-harm to even things like addictive or shooting or shooting ourselves in the foot or procrastination, all has to do with Affect Dysregulation. Trauma disregulates the way we manage our emotions.

The second thing that affects is our consciousness and attention. So what do I mean by consciousness? So our ability to focus, our ability to go to sleep or be mentally checked in, right? So we will start to check out mentally.

The third domain that it affects is self-perception or Identity. As we go through traumatic experiences, it changes the way we view ourselves.

The fourth thing it affects is relationships and the reason is that trauma is almost always inflicted by another human being and so when other human beings inflict trauma on us, it changes the way we view relationships, ok? So we carry certain learnings like,” Oh, like water and whole crocodile” we start to be scared of any body of water.

The fifth thing that it affects is our somatic self. So we sort of know is that there are tons of research that starts with even Freud who noticed that people who have traumatic upbringings have changes to their body and have a lot of somatic complaints.

So these are the 5 domains that trauma affects.

So what does it take for something to be traumatic?

Most important element, is Coercive Control. An environment of coercive control. And now this is what is confusing for people because people think like, “ Ok, hold on a second. So Isn’t sexual assault traumatic?” And the answer is, it can be. And some people may say, Well, hold on. What about things like genocide? Isn’t genocide traumatic?” And this here like literally according to the data, the answer is like, it can be. So if you look at a population, that is affected by genocidal war, hopefully, some of them escape which is why they are still alive. We discover that everyone doesn’t develop PTSD. Not everyone who is in a prison camp experiences PTSD. Not everyone who is sexually assaulted experiences PTSD.

So what trauma researchers sort of figured out is that a key aspect is coercive control and what does it mean? It means that you grow up in an environment where someone is coercing you and controlling you. So what people sort of figured out and you also look at trauma research and what you can actually figure out is when researchers looked at like guards from concentration camps and the abuse of parents. What they figured out is that everyone uses the same techniques and so human beings intrinsically know how to control other human beings. It doesn’t have to be taught. It’s discovered.

So here is what happens in the mind of an abuser.’

What they want to do is try to destroy your autonomy. And the way they destroy your autonomy is by imposing certain kinds of limits. But this is what’s really important. So they make some sort of petty or arbitrary rule. The rule doesn’t have much function, right? It doesn’t really matter if I put my jacket away or put my shoes away but the abuser is like,” You do it in this order because I told you so” after smacking you. And so what they are doing in that moment is destroying your autonomy.

This is key, key part of traumatic people abusers is that what they want to do is that if they treat you unfairly all the time then you are gonna mentally check out because like this person is unreasonable. They are like the weather. There is nothing I can do to control them. But the moment the person starts doing nice stuff to you, now suddenly you know, “ Ok, I can get the nasty parent or I can get the good parent” and so the way that they chip away your autonomy is by actually creating an environment where the person who is traumatised feels like that they are in control by like not pissing this other person off. So they know that this person is capable of kindness. “And so if I behave properly, then this person will be nice to me.” It engenders a dependence on the abuser for all things good and all things bad, right? Because that’s the only way it is going to happen. So i become dependent on this person because this is the person that brings me the treats and this is the person that brings me the punishment. But if I ever get the treats from one person and the punishment from another person, then I am going to become independent. Because I am going to say,”F this person.” So in the abusive relationship what they actually do is they are very careful, we sort of see this, we call Love Bombing, right? Like this person is nasty to you and they love bomb you. What happens in the mind of the abused person is that this abuser becomes God. He is the bestower of health and happiness. He is the bestower of being able to go to bed at night without bruises on my body.

And so when this happens and this is what people will intentionally do is that they would create petty rules, things that are not justifiable and there is a lot of unpredictability because of there is unpredictability then the person is kind of like engages in the behaviour. We sort of see this with loot boxes when there is some kind of random reinforcement schedule, we sort of play the game over and over and over again. And so if I know that sometimes if I behave myself, I get a chocolate cake, I am going to keep playing the game over and over and over again. Traumatic abusers were the original loot box, loot box 1.0.

And so over time what this person will do is engender dependence on the person who is being traumatised. As we become dependent on the abuser, a couple of things start to happen. The first thing is that independent action becomes insubordination. And when that happens, what does that do to your autonomy? Destroys it. If your sense of autonomy is destroyed, how can you initiate actions? You can’t because you were taught that independent action is insubordination.

Second thing is that in traumatic relationships there is no room for trial and error because if I talk back, I am going to get beaten. I can’t test boundaries. It’s about survival. No Impala or Gazelle goes up to the edge of the water and gebates the crocodile. It’s insane. We get at people in places like social media where there is no real consequence. We do not debate crocodiles.

So this is where we see another aspect of the paralysis of initiation for people who are traumatised which is if I have learnt trial and error is absolutely a mistake, I can’t try anything. What that means is that if I can’t try anything, it has to be a perfect success. And until I can get it into a perfect success, I cannot start. So if you are someone who looks towards perfection before you get started, could be a trauma response.

So what we discover in research on people who are traumatised is that they had emotion focused coping. So if I am hurt, I am focused on fixing my emotions because I can’t control anything outside of me. So I can’t stop my parents from being abusive, I can’t stop the guards from hitting me, all I can do is focus on my internal emotional state because I fundamentally don’t have control over myself. So my brain learns when I am suffering, "Don’t change anything out there because changing stuff out there is futile, what I need to fix is in here. So i am going to do what? I am going to disassociate or I am going to use drugs."

So there is a very high correlation between substance use and people who have been traumatised because fundamentally the way that you learn to fix problems is within because you can’t control anything outside. Then you carry that learning with you.

So now, when my professor says,” Your paper was due today and I didn’t receive a paper. So I have to dock you 10 points but give it to me by the end of the weekend and you could still get a B” This is a problem. And how do we deal with problems? We deal with them through emotionally focused coping. So how do I fix this problem? I get smashed because this hurts. And what do I do when things from the inside? Can I fix the things from the outside? No no no no no. I cannot fix them on the outside so I have to fix it on the inside. So when I have problems, problems are fixed by fixing emotions And to fix our emotions we are gonna do stuff like getting addicted to substances and now we began to see like when this sort of becomes an addiction like because instead of fixing the problem itself, all I know what to do is to use substances to fix the emotions because that’s the strategy that worked and if I am fixing the emotions, and that’s the strategy that worked and I am getting drunken, let's say or smashed, then Monday rolls around. My paper is even later and now I get a C. And now when I get a C, what do I do? I am gonna drink more. And so it becomes a cycle of increasing problems followed by worsening emotions followed by increasing problematic behaviours.

So this is what’s bizarre is there is so many different things going on. There are relationships, there is identity, there is been the inability to concentrate, there is emotional suppression, there is inability to think about the future, there is living life reactively, there is focus on emotional coping instead of actually fixing your problems, all of this is related to trauma. And it manifests in so many different things. Right? Our big list of chronic depression, I can’t stop watching porn, I am living my life like a zombie, if someone comes to me and initiates, I can do stuff but I can’t have direction. If someone asks you, “What do you want?” I want an amalgamation of what other people want. “No, what do YOU want?” I don’t know what I want. “Why don’t you know what you want?” I don’t know who I am. “Why don’t you know who you are?” Well, my brain when I was growing up adaptively fractured different parts, created problems like hemispheric lateralisation and we are not even touching things like cortisol and all those crap. And since I disassociate from my emotions and I have no upward momentum in life, all of this negative energy and anger is going to start manifesting in weird ways in my body.

Now, asking the important questions

Can you change?

The answer is, absolutely. Remember that our brain is fragmented but it isn’t broken. So I have a ton of very positive experiences as a psychologist in helping people with trauma. People think that things like Borderline Personality Disorder or Narcissism are permanent because this is the way I was wired, right? Thankfully not correct. You could put all these pieces together. You can absolutely wind up putting the pieces together and the data even supports this. 91% of the people who have borderline personality disorder will be in remission at the 10-year mark. The natural history of the human body and mind is to heal. That’s what’s super cool about it. Don’t give up hope because remember you are not actually broken. It’s not a malfunction of some fundamental circuit, right? We just have to put the pieces back together.

How do we do that?

1. Safety and stabilisation. It’s like high cortisol, high stress, high emotion leads to disassociation, leads to fragmented identity, right? The first thing you have to do is be safe. Very hard to heal trauma if you are actively getting traumatised. A simple way to put it is you can’t learn how to swim if you are drowning. The right way to learn how to swim is to get out of the water, catch your breath and then go in slowly. So this is where I hate to say this and I wish that we lived in a world where you could just read this article, wake up tomorrow and by force of will, fix yourself but it starts by fixing your environment. And what does fixing your environment look like? So I would say strive for independence or limitations around the toxic people. So this is where you don’t have to fix everything. Watch out for your mind cause what it does is like that is like look at the reactions of your mind. Sometimes it’s as simple as seeing a therapist for 1 hour a week. That can be enough of a platform for you to rest on and start to branch out in the rest of your life but safety and stabilisation are THE most important thing.

2. The second thing is we need to deal with anxiety and emotional coping. The foundation of a lot of this stuff is the disintegration of our emotions. That doesn’t mean the absence of emotions, that means literally the disintegration. So this is why things like DBT or dialectical behavioural therapy are so effective. We also have things like EMDR, which works somewhat differently, these are two evidence-based treatments but we also know that things like meditation, exercise etc can all work for this kind of stuff. Very practically what this means is that when you are experiencing some kind of negative emotion, the most important thing to do is don’t go towards the emotional coping mechanism. Ok? So here is what happens. When I have negative emotions, there is emotional coping which reduces negative emotions and now what I have done is taken the right hemisphere and I have shut it off. But the whole point is we need that emotion. We literally need the emotion. It’s a part of the integration. So we have to stop doing this. And now this is what’s super cool. When we do something like psychotherapy, what we do is we help this person to take that emotion go over to Broca’s area and put it into language. Now, I am about to say something that I don’t expect you to believe but it is true. LANGUAGE can substitute for ACTION. The biggest misunderstanding in society today is that if you have a problem, you have to fix the problem. Literally, Freud came up with this concept and it has been tested, language can substitute for action. 100% We see time and time in our coaching programme, we see it in psychotherapy, a lot of people don’t sign up for this stuff because they are like, “I don't understand how talking about it makes any difference. The problem still exists.” And literally, I hope what I have done at this point is when you ARTICULATE, there is INTEGRATION. When there is INTEGRATION, there is FLOW STATE and when there is FLOW STATE there is IMPROVEMENT.

Because here is the problem. So here is this other thing to remember. The frontal lobes are here too. These are the parts of your brain that plan and execute tasks but as long as the corpus callosum is severed, that emotion, you cannot use, to fuel you. So literally, this is what I have seen, people who have been traumatised and they will go to psychotherapy, we will teach them how to integrate their emotions and they turn their life around. You know how to find a job. You know how to build a resume. You know how to google that crap, you know how to ask GPT to do it for you. The problem is not in not knowing how to do it. The problem is that your brain doesn’t do what it's supposed to do. Why doesn't your brain do what it's supposed to do? Because its split into a million pieces. It’s not a brain. It’s a thousand different fragments that are all dissociated from each other and can’t actually do anything.

Language is a substitute for action. Crazy! But true. And we kind of know this, right? So there’s stuff about cognitive dissonance, just to give you a random example. If you get someone to say what you are going to do something about or believe that they are going to do something, it makes them more likely to do it. You know what I mean? So once you say something, you are like, it's hard for you to not do it. There are all kind of connections, literally your brain’s Broca’s area where we articulate things and the frontal lobes where we plan and execute action especially the left side of the brain are connected. And we sort of know that like, if we look at things like motivational interviewing in coaching and stuff like that, our methodology is that we don’t teach people anything, we just get them to articulate it. And you can’t articulate something unless you understand it. Unless you understand it, I am not talking about information, I am talking about understanding. Then you start doing it and what do you do when you start doing it, what’s the thought that you have? Oh crap! This was actually way easier than I thought. This is the value of understanding. Understanding comes from integration and integration comes from articulating your emotions. So articulate your emotions.

3. The Last thing. I am going to teach you, is a meditation. Ek Tatva Abhyas. It literally takes 10-15 min a day and that is, just do one thing. I am not even saying make it productive. If it’s hard to do productive things, you don’t have to do productive things. Put your phones away when you eat. When you are shitting in your toilet, shit completely. Grab a cup of tea and drink it completely. When we do Ek tatva Abhyas, put your full attention into the one thing. It can even be your breath. For one moment, do it with me now. Close your eyes. Feel the breath. Inhale and Exhale. That’s it. And for a moment, think about nothing else. Chop wood, carry water. Focus on one thing at a time. That’s it.

If you look at trauma treatments, they are very very complicated. But I hope today that if you hopefully, I don’t know how to do this but I tried to explain what trauma is, so don’t give up hope because actually, the majority of evidence suggests that you will get better. There are things you can do to accelerate it. And the cool thing is that no matter which of these problems you have and maybe the reason that you don’t have a diagnosis is that you don’t have all of them because remember, in mental illness, we need the majority of it but what I found time and time again is whether people are like directionless in life, living life on autopilot, can’t concentrate, keep on running towards emotional coping mechanisms, trauma is the goldmine to transform your life because it is the fundamental way our brain works and the way that we interact with the world, the way we find direction, the way we execute tasks, the way we form relationships, all of it can be found in trauma which is why it is the great chameleon because it looks like a thousand different problems but its all one problem. And that problem has to do with the way how your brain works. And if you can conquer this one thing and honestly, it's not that hard, i mean its really hard nut its very doable. Start with simple things like don’t run away from your emotions, and articulate your emotions.

The real tragedy of this stuff is that the reason we suffer, the Yogis say the reason we suffer is Avidya, ignorance which really confuses a lot of people but this is why. If you play a game and you don’t understand the rules, it’s gonna be painful. But once you understand the rules, “Ok, item timings, rotations, the flow of the map” you can play the game well. And if there’s one thing you want to learn about how to play the game of life well, understand trauma.

You deserve the best

Take care

See you in the next post


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