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What even IS “Trauma”?

(A non-intimidating explanation)

It seems these days, in schools, the media, parenting groups on Facebook… everyone is talking about “trauma.” What counts as trauma? And why does it have anything to do with behavior?

All excellent questions. I had them myself, once. As a matter of fact, it was touched on in grad school often… but no one really gave me nitty-gritty information on how it impacted people, and what to do about it.

The normal people definition of “trauma” is – something, or a lot of somethings, that were so scary or so hurtful that they left a pervasive impact on a person’s brain and body. 

“Hey Katie, I ran into a glass window once thinking it was an open door, and I really hurt my nose. Now I’m always on the lookout for windows that look like open doors! Is that trauma?”

No…But it is funny. 

Now let’s say you ran into a window that looked like an open door, and you felt very much in danger, at risk of something terrible happening because you ran into the window. Six months later, you’re having nightmares about it happening again, avoiding anywhere that has large window panes. You’re also getting stuck in flashbacks about running into the window, and it keeps you from doing your normal life things. NOW we’re getting close to calling that trauma. 

Trauma is usually used to describe a situation in which a person witnessed, experienced, or learned about something very scary – something that was violent or extremely dangerous. Traditionally, think of bad car accidents, witnessing school violence, going through a natural disaster…

Now, what in the world does that have to do with behavior? Or the body even? You lived through that smack into the window, and your nose-bruises are all gone, so what gives? Well, I’ll tell ya. 

If you experience something so horrifying that you thought you might die, or someone else may die, or be seriously injured, etc, your brain stores that information in a different place. It’s stored in a place closer to the brain stem. We in the biz call it “the back brain.” The back brain controls things like breathing, heart rate, etc. 

Now let’s say that people cannot figure out why you become a sweaty mess when you go to Biggby, and you get panicky and irritable if you stay there too long. You might not know why either. You might start avoiding Biggby all together. One thing almost all Biggbys have in common: big window panes. (can you tell I’m sitting in Biggby writing this?)

Okay, I realize this is a silly example. But this is sort of how trauma works. The dark, scary memory gets stored deep in the back brain, and things that represent that memory can over-activate your nervous system. Your breathing gets more shallow, your heart pumps fast, you are super alert and on-edge. You are quite literally ready to run or fight when the big scary thing happens again, which your brain is sure of. 

The good news is: we can reverse these symptoms. we can retrain our brains. We can teach our bodies to be calm. But there is absolutely a method and a particular way to do this, particularly if you’re dealing with a trauma that has been troubling you for a long time (more than 6 months)

If you think trauma might be keeping you from living the fun, hilarious, joyful life you want to live, holler at us. We can help!



About the author:

grand rapids counselor near ada MIKatie Zuverink is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) living in Grand Rapids, MI. She specializes in trauma work with kids and parents, and she especially loves coaching adults through difficult parenting dynamics. She also loves working with women’s issues (anxiety, depression, balancing the life of being a woman in today’s world). For more on Katie, read her full bio.






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