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Defining Trauma – How Trauma Overwhelms our Capacity to Cope...The Body Keeps the Score*

10 April 2024

A hand appearing out of a dark ocean against a grey sky.

Since the Pandemic, more and more of us have become aware of 'trauma' as something that might be relevant to our own lives. Even 5 years ago, it wasn’t a word I heard or saw much and when it was used, it was really only in reference to what we might think of as ‘obviously’ traumatic events – eg. the effects of war, natural disaster or a car accident or the result of an abusive childhood or a single act of violence.

As a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (treating trauma), I do perhaps live in a bit of a ‘trauma bubble’ but I don’t think it’s just me. We’re seeing more and more references to trauma on Social Media and in mainstream news outlets and have become much more accustomed to hearing the terms used (often erroneously) in daily life. It seems that we’ve become very aware that the effects of isolation, fear of infection and sickness, fear of the unknown and even fear of one another has left ripples throughout the world in how we feel, behave and interact both as individuals and within our wider communities.

But not everything terrible in life results in trauma and truly shocking events effect people very differently.

So is What Happened Really Trauma?

Let's have a look at a few examples of what trauma often isn't.

A parent shouts at their child because they just won’t get dressed in the morning and now they're going to be late.

This is not traumatic for the child. It’s shocking and upsetting and there may be tears, but in itself this isn’t a traumatic event. However, this could potentially be traumatic if it happens again and again over time and there is no repair offered by the parent.

An mildly unpleasant or painful experience isn’t ‘traumatic’. A massage therapist gave me a deep, sometimes painful massage a couple of weeks ago. Afterwards, he said with a smile – ‘’I hope I didn’t traumatise you!” No, you didn’t. That is not trauma. At no time did the experience exceed my capacity to cope and feel.

On December 26, 2004, my sister and I were on the Thai island of Koh Lanta when the Tsunami hit. We saw the wave come hit the beach, we saw the restaurant we’d been sitting in get washed into the sea and we ran up to higher ground to safety. We were cut off from our families and the outside world for 24 hours but we had one another; we were cared for by the local community, we supported others who were worse off than ourselves and we were well-resourced and well-rested before the Tsunami hit. We were shocked and in shock for a while but ultimately, neither of us was traumatised by the event, even though hundreds, even thousands, of others were.

"And I ran and missed the bus and then a car drove through a big puddle on the way past and I got absolutely soaked... it was soooo traumatic!"

Not true - this event is also not, in itself, traumatic - especially not when the person tells the story an hour later next to the coffee machine at work, whilst laughing about it with her friends and getting the care, affection and attention she wants through telling the story.

A car accident in which you’re rear-ended and break an arm, or even sustain multiple injuries also isn’t necessarily traumatic. If you are calm and well-resourced (e.g you have a supportive homelife, without much stress, and slept well) before the accident and immediately received appropriate love, care, attention and time to recover in the aftermath, you might well recover from that experience without trauma. However, if you were under a lot of stress, going through a divorce and had just had an upsetting argument with your boss before the accident and endured inattentive or dismissive medical in the aftermath and went home to an empty house afterwards, it would be much more likely to result in trauma.

Defining Trauma

Trauma occurs as the result of many different types of events - e.g. medical trauma, trauma after natural disasters or war. It also occurs after abuse or an act of violence or an accident. But not only these types of events cause trauma - and trauma doesn't always occur because of these types of events.

At its essence, trauma encompasses any event or experience that overwhelms our capacity to cope and that leaves an enduring imprint on our mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

Peter Levine, the founder of Somatic Experiencing, defines trauma as something that happens ‘too much, too fast and too soon’. He also, very importantly, points to something that is all too often missed when defining and understanding trauma – that trauma is in the response of the Nervous System - of the body - to an event and not in the event itself. It’s incredibly important to understand this point because it explains why different people can have such widely varying responses to the same event or seemingly lesser or minor events.

“Trauma is not what happens to you. Trauma is what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you.”  

Gabor Maté

From a somatic viewpoint, trauma extends way beyond the event and our cognitive response to that event — it encompasses a comprehensive bodily involvement. Picture the body as a finely tuned orchestra, with each system playing a distinct role. When a potentially traumatising event occurs, it introduces a dissonant note, throwing the entire symphony into disarray, and the recovery of the system depends enormously on what factors were at play before that event occurred and whether the individual has support, connection and understanding during and after the event.

Continuing with the orchestra analogy – if the strings of the lead violin break during the concert, does the conductor notice and signal gently to the 2nd violin to take over whilst smiling and nodding encouragingly at the other player and the rest of the orchestra whilst they restring and retune their violin? Or does the conductor stop the orchestra and shout at the musician for being careless or ignore their distress and simply storm off stage, leaving the entire orchestra feeling lost, angry and confused?

The Autonomic Nervous System is central to the orchestra of the body – and it responds to threat, or potential threat with a triad of reactions: fight, flight, and freeze.

While the fight-or-flight response is widely recognised, the freeze response is equally significant. In moments of extreme threat, if there’s no possibility to run away or fight back – or that response didn’t work - the body may immobilise, akin to a deer that initially runs from the lion and then struggles on being caught but then freezes or collapses as the threat of death draws closer.

A fight-flight and/ or freeze response can linger in the body – and mind - long after the original threat has passed, if there isn’t sufficient care, time or opportunity to process the event, leaving people trapped - sometimes for years - in a state of inertia or ‘depression’ or feeling constantly wired and alert to danger, unable to fully rest and let go.

A young girl with long hair and a worried, nervous expression holds her hands over her ears. A hand appears in front of her, pointing a finger at her.

In Somatic Experiencing, we refer to this state as a functional freeze – oscillating between feeling numb or disconnected and going through the motions in life.

We can also get stuck in fight-flight, feeling vigilant and restless, unable to properly relax or sleep… a sense of being wired and always alert to the next thing going wrong; the next real or perceived threat. The body has stored the ‘survival stress’ and can’t find a way out of the pattern.

This is why talking therapy alone often isn’t effective in healing trauma; we simply cannot think or plan our way out of a survival response that is held, or trapped, in the body.

Depending on how this state presents and why it first occurred, being stuck in a state of fight-flight and/or freeze may result in a diagnosis of PTSD - which is medically defined as an anxiety disorder that develops in reaction to physical injury or severe mental or emotional distress, such as military combat, violent assault, natural disaster, or other life-threatening events.

Other Types of Trauma

Many of us don’t understand why we, or those we know, are struggling because we think of trauma only as these big, one-off events or experiences.

But trauma doesn’t only occur after isolated incidents or events.

For example, Secondary trauma can occur from exposure to the experiences of others, a little like catching a cold from someone else’s sneeze. Witnessing a loved one's struggles or being witness to violence or widespread calamity can inflict profound and lasting wounds. For example, medical staff and doctors are suffering from PTSD as a result of what they witnessed and lived through during the Pandemic.

Another very difference cause of trauma is neglect or abuse in childhood. This includes all that which did NOT happen, but was needed – safety, love, consistency, attention and care. In order to visualise the cascading effects of trauma it’s helpful to look at the ACE pyramid—an illustrative framework delineating Adverse Childhood Experiences first developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente. These range from abuse and neglect to household dysfunction (divorce, death of a loved one, alcoholism in the home or imprisonment of a family member). ACEs can form the shaky foundations upon which subsequent challenges rest.

This type of trauma can be labelled or defined as cPTSD – or complex trauma. It is very real and yet remains un-recognised by the DSM**.

A woman sits hunched over and alone in front of big corner windows overlooking a city below.

A type of trauma that is often missed or dismissed is cumulative trauma. This type of trauma, or accumulated survival stress, happens slowly sometimes over a lifetime and can slowly destroy the lives of those who are living with something they don't recognise as trauma.

Unrecognised and unsupported trauma gives rise to symptoms and chronic conditions as the body starts to show what the mind hasn't understood or allowed. So if you have a chronic condition or illness, perhaps take a little time to consider this type of trauma -

Cumulative Trauma accrues through the accumulation of seemingly inconsequential stressors over time, akin to erosion of the landscape by a multitude of small tributaries. This gradual wearing down of resilience might continue for years, event after small event, until we're left feeling worn out, empty, overwhelmed, physically ill, anxious or depressed.

I was one of these people – I gave myself such a hard time because I honestly didn’t understand why I was finding life so challenging. That was, until I began to understand the Nervous System and the fight-flight-freeze response and to join the dots between all the different events that had taken place in my life over a decade:

  • The breakdown of a relationship in my mid thirties and a big move back to the UK after 16 years living abroad

  • Moved house 3 times in 4 years

  • A new relationship led to a much-wanted baby but the father left while I was pregnant

  • Project-managed the gutting & renovation of a house whilst pregnant & working

  • Single parenting my son; needing to return to work before either of us was ready

  • Ongoing criticism and negativity from my ex for 2 years

  • New relationship

  • A miscarriage

  • Moved Country – leaving support network, community and job

  • Maternal Grandmother died

  • Loss of identity in a new country: lack of community and friendships

  • Mother diagnosed with terminal cancer; nursed her at home until she died

  • International pandemic; experiencing social isolation whilst home-schooling my son

  • Son being bullied in school

It was also during this decade that I realised I was in peri-menopause. This is a time of huge vulnerability and transition for women that needs time, space and support to navigate gracefully and safely; all of which are largely lacking in our culture. It is also a time in our lives that we feel more and have less resilience to accumulated stress than ever before because of the loss of oestrogen, the 'accommodating' hormone.

Somatic Experiencing has been – and continues to be – the key to my own healing, alongside a solid network of lifestyle practices, continued support from family and a growing community.

The Cracks are Where the Light Gets In

Just as Leonard Cohen wrote, light and hope can enter again after a period or even a lifetime of chronic stress or trauma and there IS such a thing as post-traumatic growth. It’s true that trauma reshapes both our brains and our lives, but we also possess the power to rewire and rebuild them by restoring our resilience and capacity.

Through somatic therapies, education, connection and radical self-care we can learn to soothe, regulate and restore our Nervous System, and rewrite the stories we tell ourselves.

We cannot go back and change the past, but we can reshape our relationship to it and reclaim our sense of agency, empowerment and purpose in the world.

And we don’t have to do this alone – in fact, trauma healing is done in connection and through increasing our felt sense of safety. It may not be easy, and it may not happen overnight, but with time, patience, and a whole lot of self-compassion, we all have the possibility to feel safe, whole and empowered in our lives.


* the title of this blog is borrowed from the title of Bessel van der Kolk’s book ‘The Body Keeps the Score’

** The DSM is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This is the handbook used by health care professionals in much of the world as the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders.


Fiona L Smith/ @fionabodywisdom

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