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What is trauma anyway?


I’ve talked a lot about trauma. It’s a big word that most of us would shy away from claiming as our own. We typically associate the word trauma with something catastrophic like a violent attack or a car accident. However, there are other forms of trauma that a lot of us experience that are equally as impactful with the same neurobiological changes as a catastrophic event.

In his book “Trauma”, Dr. Paul Conti, a renowned trauma scientist from Stanford Medical School, categorizes trauma into three main buckets: acute trauma, chronic trauma, and vicarious trauma.

  • Acute trauma is what we think of when we hear the word trauma – an event that most people would recognize as severe with an immediate and radical difference of who you are post event compared to who you were pre-event.

  • Chronic trauma results from “prolonged exposure to harmful situations or people”. Think anything that causes chronic stress including high pressure situations without time for recovery, demanding workplaces, toxic relationships, and financial uncertainty. This type of trauma is a stressful experience typically accompanied by feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, or lacking control.

  • Vicarious trauma is when we are harmed by internalizing the pain of others. “It can affect any compassionate person who doesn’t shy away from the suffering of others”. This can come from working with those suffering from acute trauma or prolonged exposure to news cycles of suffering and doom and gloom.

Why is this important to know?

Because most of us are dealing with pressures from chronic stress and a world that seems to be forever in collapse. All forms of trauma impact our body in the same way. Trauma, of any kind, changes our neurobiology, literally rewiring our brain-body systems to be more hypervigilant, stressed, depressed, shut-down, and/or numb.

Trauma also fundamentally alters the way we show-up in the world, who we think we are, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we deserve or don’t deserve and what we’re capable of or not capable of. Trauma “hijacks our limbic system, twists our memories, and changes our brain. We feel, think, decide, and act in ways we never would have before. We become different people.”

The more we implicitly store experiences of stress, the more ingrained it becomes in our system and the more it becomes our default mode of operating. This is trauma.

Since most of us aren’t aware of the impacts of chronic stress or continued vicious news cycles, we often don’t know, and can’t perceive a change in ourselves. We’ll wake up with a slightly altered belief about the world without any awareness that something has shifted. And this seemingly small shift, of even a few degrees, can have a huge impact on the overall trajectory of our lives.

This is why making the subconscious conscious is vital to our overall well-being. If we know how the things in our lives are impacting us, we can intervene and prevent stress from taking hold of our lives and derailing our hopes and dreams.

So today when you’re feeling overwhelmed at work or by the state of the world, take a few minutes to feel your feet on the ground and take a few big breaths. By grounding in the present moment and feeling your body, you can start to circumvent the impact of stress.

Cheers to better living


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