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March 10, 2021

S2|EP7: Healing Trauma (Part 2): What Causes Trauma + Why Trauma Isn’t Just About Negative Thoughts

S2|EP7: Healing Trauma (Part 2): What Causes Trauma + Why Trauma Isn’t Just About Negative Thoughts

So what is trauma exactly? If "bad" things happened to me in the past, can't I just think more positively to forget about them? In this episode, we explore why trauma and its impacts are so much more than about how we think.

In this episode, Janice breaks down 4 (unofficial) “trauma basics” in sharing more about how trauma develops and is experienced: 

  1. Different types of trauma (shock, developmental, and complex trauma) and examples of potentially traumatic events; 
  2. Trauma is not about the event but a person’s subjective experience of the event; 
  3. Some factors that influence how vulnerable or resilient an individual might be to a potentially traumatic event; 
  4. Trauma is something that is experienced in a person’s nervous system + how our fight-flight-freeze response and more primitive parts of our brains are involved in the development of trauma.

She also offers some perspectives for how folks might approach learning about trauma and doing the healing work that involve self-compassion, holding multiple truths at the same time, and a holistic approach to our healing practices.

This episode is part 2 of an ongoing series on healing trauma.

*Please note that Janice is not a trauma expert or therapist, and that this series shares about her one personal experience of learning about and healing trauma

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Hey y'all, welcome back to the Soul's Work Podcast. I’m your host, Janice Ho. Thanks so much for being here. We are talking about healing trauma. And originally, I had said this would be a 3-part series, but there’s a lot of information in explaining how trauma develops, how it impacts us on so many levels, that I decided to split what was going to be part 2 in half. Because I really want to honour this advice that I emphasized in part 1 to really go slow with this stuff.

So, just to take a step back, in Part 1 of this series, I shared the story of what led me down this journey of exploring and healing my traumas, and why it’s been such an important part of my self-work. I also shared one definition of trauma, which we’re going to really dive deeper into today, and in the next episode.

And so, today, in Part 2 of this series, I’m going to talk about how trauma develops. So, what are some potential causes of trauma? How does trauma actually get experienced and develop in our bodies? This was really eye-opening stuff for me when I first learned about it. And it really changed my views on what it meant to do self-development work and how to begin to really change some of the things I felt stuck on in my life.

Then, in Part 3, I’ll talk about why we get triggered in the present by past traumas, as well as some of the very wide-ranging outcomes of trauma, and how trauma can get expressed in our lives, our relationships, the way we view ourselves, even years after an original traumatic event occurred.

And who knows? Maybe this will turn into a 5-part series, because there’s also so much to talk about when it comes to the actual healing of trauma, which will be the last topic in this series.

And I think today you’ll start getting a sense of how complex trauma really can be – and so when it comes to our therapeutic practices, our healing practices, that can also be a really complex, multi-layered process.

Disclaimers and things

So, before we dive in, I want to mention 2 maybe helpful perspectives to approach this trauma education with. 

For one, there is a lot in the trauma education about how childhood experiences can lead to the development of trauma. And I recognize that it can be really challenging to sometimes be confronted with this idea of how our parents might not have been able to care for us in the way that we needed when we were really young.

And it can be extremely hard and painful to kind of reconcile that perhaps some of the actions or inactions of our parents might have led to the development of trauma for us. Trust me, I’ve been there. It makes total sense, even on a biological level, that we don’t want to look at our parents, our primary caregivers, in that way. 

Now, this is just my one personal experience, but what I have found though is that the more I’ve done this work, the less afraid I’ve actually become of this risk that I’ll end up blaming my parents or looking at them like they’re bad people or that they don’t love me.

In fact, the opposite has happened, which is that the more I’ve come to understand my own traumas, the more I’ve learned about trauma in general, the more I’ve done the work on exploring my family history and the intergenerational trauma involved – so that includes understanding my parents’ traumas on a certain level – the more compassion I’ve actually actually developed for them in a really deep way. 

So, I just want to throw that out there – that looking at trauma, healing trauma, doesn’t have to equate to viewing our parents as being bad or not having loved us. Personally, I fully believe that my parents have loved me to the best of their capacity. And I have a ton of love for them, regardless of things that have happened. Does that mean they’ve always done what’s best for my self-development and nurturing and all those things? Not necessarily.

But I think we can hold both things at the same time. We can hold that certain things that happened in our childhood impacted us deeply, and maybe sometimes not in the most helpful ways, and also we can hold that our parents still may have had all the best intentions and love in the world for us.

And of course, I also know some folks who have a different relationship with their parents, and may not be able to say that, or even want to say that – and that’s such a personal, individual thing that I totally respect.

And as I mentioned in the last episode, this trauma-healing work doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to go into every single thing that ever happened in your childhood. The point of this work is not to relive old, painful memories.

But I know that it’s kind of hard not to have some of those memories come up during this exploration. And also, sometimes it can be really helpful to understand some of the connections between our childhood experiences and why we might be continuing to, say, be in the types of relationships that don’t work out for us, or why we might always have these recurring negative beliefs about ourselves. So that is really important, and I think definitely worth taking the time to point out before we begin.

Second, there can be a really sort of negative connotation around even the word trauma. We might perceive the ways in which we responded and adapted to traumatic events as being problems, dysfunctional, negative.

And one really helpful perspective I’ve learned through my journey is reminding myself that these responses and adaptations to trauma have always been meant to be protective. It’s been our body’s way of trying to cope with what can feel at the time as impossible to deal with or survive without going through an incredible amount of pain and distress.

And of course, as we might come to realize that those coping or protective mechanisms don’t actually serve us anymore, that they might actually get in the way of connection, both with ourselves and others, then we want to learn new ways to deal with the stressful things that come up in our lives. We might want to heal old traumas that continue to get triggered in the present, and instinctively evoke our old ways of coping and doing things that we’ve decided are now doing more harm than good.

But I think coming at it from a very loving perspective, of ourselves, is really important for letting go of some of the shame I think that can arise at times, when we think, why aren’t we doing things differently or better?

Okay, so lastly, I just wanted to reiterate that I'm not a trauma expert or a therapist. I've just been learning a lot about trauma over the past three years and a bit, and doing a lot of work on my own trauma healing. And if you’ve been following this podcast, you know this is about me sharing my personal self-development or spiritual journey. And given that the trauma-healing work I’ve done has been the most transformative thing in my life thus far, I would be just greatly remiss to not talk about this here.

So, as a non-expert, I'm gonna do my best to share some of the things I've learned from the actual experts, and I’ll make sure to link to lots of resources in the show notes so that you can go learn more as you need or want to. Just please do remember my advice from the last episode – to go as slow as you need to with all of this stuff, because it is truly a life-long journey.

Trauma basics #1-4

So, as I mentioned, today I want to dive a little deeper into the definition of trauma I shared in the last episode by talking about a few things that have commonly come up when I’ve read books or watched educational videos or listened to podcasts on trauma, or when I’ve further learned about these things from my therapist. Kind of like sharing some "trauma basics," as I'm gonna call each little bit of trauma education that I talk about today. 

And on one hand, I’m going to be covering such a small fraction of all the trauma education that I know of – and of course, I have still yet to learn so much more – so please know this isn’t comprehensive in any way.

But on the other hand, taking all of this in might still feel like a lot. Especially if this is maybe the first time you’re really learning about trauma. It’s possible that certain memories or even just physical sensations or emotions might come up that feel uncomfortable, or even overwhelming.

And if that happens at any point in this episode, please know that that’s a really normal and understandable reaction. And please also don’t power through it. Listen to your body, take a pause, a break, come back to this entirely another time. There's no rush, this will always be here. So do what you need to do to get grounded at any point, and then come back whenever you're ready.

Alright, so as a reminder, the first part of the definition of trauma, that I shared, says that trauma involves something that happened in the past that created a great amount of stress, more than we had the capacity to cope with at the time. So, let’s pause there in the definition and talk about what is this something that happened in the past? What are some things that might cause trauma for us?

So, in answering this, trauma basic #1 is that there are different types of traumas that folks might experience. Typically, I find that educators will talk about developmental trauma versus shock trauma. So, in the book Waking the Tiger, the author Peter Levine describes shock trauma as potentially life-threatening events. So, this is maybe what most people intuitively think about when they hear the word trauma – so, a severe car accident, for example, or maybe the death of a loved one.

And, as well, the book Healing Developmental Trauma by Laurence Heller and Aline LaPierre – one of my favourites – describes shock trauma as “the impact of acute, devastating incidents that leave an individual frozen in fear and frozen in time.” And sometimes these things are also referred to as Big T trauma.

Whereas, developmental trauma is the result of inadequate nurturing and guidance through critical developmental periods during childhood. That’s from Waking the Tiger. And the Healing Developmental Trauma book says that with developmental trauma there’s usually no single traumatizing event, but rather it’s ongoing experiences of neglect, abuse, or misattunement.

So, even hearing that definition of developmental trauma, it seems that events associated with it might be a bit harder to identify than shock trauma. Because it’s not about one really obvious, time-bound event, like with the severe car accident.

So, what are some specific examples of developmental trauma? The book Healing Developmental Trauma, as well tons of other resources, talk about some common causes. And one way to look at it is that developmental trauma can occur when a baby or a young child’s biological developmental needs are not being met.

And the Healing Developmental Trauma book outlines the five needs that are biologically based, they are core to us as humans, as being: 1) connection – so, the need for contact with our caregivers; the need for a welcoming, safe environment, things that help make us feel that we are loved and belong; 2) attunement – the need for having one’s personal needs fulfilled; 3) trust – the need for healthy trust and interdependence; 4) autonomy – the need for independence; and 5) love-sexuality – so, wanting to love and be loved.

So, developmental trauma can occur, then, when these needs are not fulfilled by one’s caregivers. So, it could be things like chronic abuse or neglect in the childhood home. It could be a lot of stress and conflict happening in the family home maybe between the parents.

It might also be something like a baby having to experience a surgery that can really shake that small child’s sense of safety in the world – and that’s maybe kind of more like a shock trauma, but part of developmental trauma can include specific shocks traumas that happen really early on.

It can also be that the developmental trauma occurs even before we’re born – so, even when we’re in the womb, and perhaps the mother is chronically stressed, and so the baby is affected by that experience. And all of these things can really impact on the very core need we have for connection. And I’ll talk about this one a bit more later in this series.

In terms of the need for trust, developmental trauma can happen, for example, when the child is “rewarded for becoming who their parents want them to be and punished for failing them.” Another potential cause is that they have to grow up too quickly, faster than they’re developmentally ready for, and so they don’t get to experience their childhood as they’re meant to.

With respect to a child’s need for autonomy, particularly when they’re between 18 months to 2 years old, and they’re really starting to want to learn how to do things for themselves, developmental trauma can happen when a parent might be really overly anxious about letting their child have that independence. And it might come from really good intentions – like, wanting to protect their child from getting hurt – but in doing so, they might actually impede that child’s biological need for independence.

And one example for the love-sexuality need is that developmental trauma can occur when “parents reject, shame, or punish the child’s emerging sexual expression and curiosity.” And that’s typically from ages 4 to 6. And later on, from ages 12 to 15, there’s another critical period for the love-sexuality need, and things like how a parent handles seeing their adolescent’s body changing, expressions of their sexual selves, maybe there’s shame around masturbation, and so on, can have a really deep impact on the person’s development.

So, that’s all from the Healing Developmental Trauma book. There’s so many other examples of what can cause developmental trauma. I’ll just mention one more really important one, because it can often get overlooked, but is quite pervasive and common.

So, you might have heard of the term “misattunement” – where if you have a misattuned parent, then they may not be responding to their child’s needs and efforts at expressing their needs in a way that provides the connection and safety and nurturing that the child is asking for. And sometimes, obviously that asking isn’t verbal – it might be in the form of crying or expressing themselves in other ways.

And that misattunement can include a parent’s emotional unavailability to their child – so, it’s not necessarily just about making sure the child is fed or their diaper is changed, but also that the child’s emotional needs are attended to.

So, if the parent is, say, depressed, or maybe going through a lot of stresses in their life – which is the case for so many people in today’s world – or the parent hasn’t healed their own traumas, those things can compromise a parent’s ability to be consistently attuned and nurturing in the way a child requires.

And some of these developmental traumas can seem really small in and of themselves, but if it’s this chronic, ongoing stress to the system, then the impact to that individual can actually be really profound.

So, again, just to pause here, as I mentioned earlier, this is not to blame parents per se. And it’s not to disregard the fact that parenting can be really fricking hard. And I’m not even a parent myself; I’ve just seen how challenging it can be, especially to be consistent all the time. There’s so many demands that are placed on parents, so I fully appreciate that.

And I know that when I think back to my parents, and the immense challenges they had being immigrants, trying to make something of their business so they could feed their family, I really acknowledge the weight of all the responsibilities they had in addition to raising two children.

And also, this is one of the things that is really important to understand when we’re learning more about trauma, that there are these connections between our childhood experiences and the impacts they can continue to have later on in life.

Okay, before we move on to trauma basic #2, I want to talk about one more type of trauma, which is complex trauma – because complex trauma is a bit more expansive than just developmental trauma, which is more so regarded as trauma in early childhood.

I just listened to a really great episode on the Transforming Trauma Podcast with Dr. Laurence Heller and Dr. Gabor Mate – I’ll link to that episode in the show notes – and they talk about what is complex trauma. And Dr. Heller views things like developmental trauma, as well as relational trauma, attachment trauma – and I believe his therapeutic model, the NARM model, which I’ll talk about probably in the next episode, would also see intergenerational trauma and cultural trauma – as all falling under this bigger umbrella of complex trauma.

And the key thing about complex trauma, for him, is the chronicity of it. So, again, as with developmental trauma, it’s usually not a single event, but rather usually has to do with ongoing relationship dynamics within the family and with other people, as well as with just the world at large. And that it’s the way we end up adapting to trauma, and distorting our sense of self in response to the trauma, that creates the difficulties we end up experiencing.

So, for me, personally, I've experienced developmental trauma and complex trauma more generally. So, also keep that in mind as well, as we go through these healing trauma episodes, that I am coming at my trauma work from that lens.

And in the last episode, I briefly shared some of the things that have occurred in my life to contribute to those traumas. But even more briefly, again, things like family dynamics when I was a child that caused I think a great deal of stress and certain attachment issues for me; a very difficult financial situation for many years of my life; housing instability; infidelity and emotional and verbal abuse by romantic partners.

I mentioned how living in a patriarchal society and culture of white supremacy can absolutely be a source of trauma for folks. And, of course, all the other oppressive systems we live under and that affect people in various ways. And a lot of the things that fall under complex trauma might also be called little t trauma, in case you want to have one more trauma term in your back pocket. 

And what this all has taught me – learning that there’s this thing called developmental trauma, complex trauma – is that certain things that I once thought shouldn’t be such a big deal, or that I didn’t even really consider as having impacted me to the extent I now know they did, were things I did actually experience as traumatic when they happened.

And it’s really easy to dismiss a lot of this stuff, because sometimes it just becomes your norm, right? Like, for me, living in what I experienced as a stressful family home, not all the time, but I think consistently enough; living in what felt like survival mode for a long time, particularly when I was a teenager and in my early 20s: having to grow up way faster than I should have had to as a young person, those things became my baseline, and it felt like, that’s just the way it is, right? That’s just life, isn’t it? And the usual: others are going through so much worse.

But now I recognize that these things can absolutely have a huge impact on the way you view yourself, the way you relate to other people, the sense of safety you feel with others or even within your own body. They can have a huge impact on the kinds of partners we choose, how we’re able to cope with stress, or not cope, and so on. 

And so, on one hand, although learning about things like complex trauma might bring up painful stuff that we may not have been thinking so much about consciously before as being particularly traumatic, on the other hand, that realization can also point to a direction of where we might need to heal some things.

If I don’t recognize something as an issue that’s affecting me, but it continues to affect me anyways, then how can I ever do something about it, right? And I’ll talk a lot more about this when I get into the episode about healing trauma practices.

So, let’s take a pause for a moment. How are y’all doing? If you want to literally hit pause on this episode, maybe get up, feel the ground under your feet. Or don’t get up – I know, for me, I like to just sometimes be under my throw blanket and decompress that way. But feel whatever you’re sitting on underneath you. Feel free to look around and maybe notice what’s in the room.

I’m looking outside my cabin door, and it’s really sunny today. It’s March 10th. Some of the snow has melted on the farm, so there’s patches of faded grass in view. A clear blue sky. There’s been birds hopping around, including some really beautiful blue jays.

And let’s just remember that in the midst of all this trauma education, that we’re still here in the present. And hopefully you do have some sense of safety right now wherever you are. Irrespective of the pandemic and what’s happening in the world, obviously. And just take some breaths, if that feels good for you.

Okay, I hope that little break was helpful and a useful reminder to go slow with this stuff. All right, if you’re ready, trauma basic #2 is that while there are these various things that can cause trauma, it’s really important to know that: Trauma is not about the event per se, it's about the person’s response to the event.

So, two people can experience the same thing – say, it’s the car accident – and come out of it very differently. Irene Lyon, a trauma educator who I’ve learned a lot from, has a 3-part video series on trauma, which I think is a really good one to watch as a sort of trauma 101 – I’ll link to that. She uses this car accident example and explains how one passenger in that car might develop severe mental health issues, have painful physical symptoms after the accident; whereas, another passenger in the same car may come out of it pretty much intact physically and mentally.

So, what I’ve really taken away from this learning is that we just cannot compare our traumas or challenging life situations or our pains with those of others. Because there’s always gonna be someone out there who “has it worse off than us.” And the knee-jerk reaction often seems to be that when our difficult feelings come up, our painful memories of the past, that we can be quick to dismiss them, to tell ourselves, “But it’s not that bad. I should really be grateful for all that I have in my life.”

But if we’re stuffing those things down due to the shame or guilt that comes up, due to this perception that we don’t deserve to feel the pain because others have it worse, then we can’t ever really begin to investigate it, and just be curious about what those feelings are about.

As they say, pain is pain is pain. Everyone struggles in their own way. So it is so important for us to be easy on ourselves with the judgment, because if unresolved traumas are still dictating our lives to a degree that we want to change, then we’ve got to honour that pain, tend to it, respect that it’s valid and has its place and is ultimately trying to tell us something.

Now, related to the fact that not everyone responds in the same way to a potentially traumatic event is, trauma basic #3, which is that there are various factors that can influence how vulnerable or resilient a person might be to a potentially traumatic event. So these are just a few of those factors:


Things about the event itself: The severity of the event, how long it’s going on for, how frequently it occurs.


Also, the person’s life situation: Do they have social support? Are they under chronic stress? Or going through other things that make it harder for them to have the resiliency or capacity to come out of a challenging event okay? This is kind of where the consideration of privilege comes in too. But we’ll talk about that a bit more in the next episode.



There's also the person’s age and physiological development. This is important when we think about babies or small children who might go through something that’s traumatic for them at that young age, but that we as adults when we look back think, “But that wasn’t a big deal.” But when we do that, we’re often coming at it from the context of us being in our greater physical power as an adult, in our greater understanding of the world and how people relate to one another. But as a child, we don’t have those same capacities. We are so much more powerless in many ways, very much dependent on our parents, and we also don’t have the same level of cognitive abilities as we do as an adult to make sense of what’s happening.

Here’s an example, when I was a kid, I used to get spanked by my dad when I was getting punished for something. One thing I seem to remember especially was when I failed to correctly memorize my 12 and 13 times tables by the deadline my dad had set. And I got spanked for other things as well, and I recall it being a very awful experience every time. I remember crying a lot, feeling incredibly fearful of my dad, ashamed, feeling physical pain.

Now, it would be easy for me, as an adult to say, well, I get why my dad did that. I don’t condone it, but I know it was part of his cultural upbringing, he didn’t know how to discipline me in another, perhaps healthier way. But I know he didn’t love me any less. And all the other things, right?

But me as a child in that moment of punishment and pain and humiliation, and the emotional distress I probably felt experiencing my dad reacting to me in this way, was – back to the trauma definition – more stress than I had the capacity to cope with at that time. And so, another thing I always keep in mind is that it’s not always about the intention, and understanding the intention now as an adult, but sometimes it’s about the impact.

So there's a bunch of other factors that can come into play. The ones I just listed are from The Complex PTSD Workbook by Dr. Arielle Schwartz, and the book lists a few other things that might make someone more susceptible to developing an adverse reaction to trauma than others. But again, it’s just important to keep in mind that each individual is so different. We each come with our own personalities, temperaments, our own set of genes, our unique family histories and personal resources, social supports, and so on. 

So we really can’t compare the way someone else has come out of a similar situation to ours. We can’t judge that and say, well, I was fine. Why aren’t they? Or in the reverse, looking at ourselves and thinking, why am I still so stuck on this thing? Why did this impact me so much, when it doesn’t seem like a big deal to anyone else? Let’s have some compassion for ourselves and also for others whose full stories we never really know, right?

Alright, I just want to do another little check-in. How are you feeling? Have you been breathing? I was doing a drop-in class with Irene Lyon a few weeks ago, where it was about reconnecting with our bodies and all our senses, and our breath, because this is something that we can become disconnected from due to trauma and stress. And now I’ve come to notice more whether I’ve stopped breathing inadvertently, or when I stop feeling the ground or the couch underneath me, as a way to keep staying in the present while I’m working through some of this stuff. So don’t forget to check in with yourself whenever you need to.

Okay, the last thing I’m going to talk about today is about what actually happens in our bodies when we’re experiencing a traumatic event. This is where I think some of the biggest learnings are with trauma education.

Because I think a lot of people have this perception that the painful feelings that come up when we’re triggered in the present because of past traumas, the intrusive thoughts that come up, the beliefs that we’re not worthy enough, etc., that all these things are a product of our minds.

So, we have these distressing thoughts in our mind related to some past painful thing that happened, so if only we just got rid of that thought, then we’d be okay, right? We wouldn’t have to experience the pain anymore. 

And unfortunately, as popular as this thinking has become, this is such a narrow view of how humans actually work. And I certainly believed it myself for a long time. Like, if only I just think better thoughts, say positive things to myself, just be grateful, don’t dwell on the negative.

It’s a very common narrative that we run into even in the self-development industry. And it’s very attractive to people, because who wouldn’t want to be able to just be in these feel-good practices of gratitude journaling and positive affirmations and good vibes only, and have everything get better? I get it. 

And I’m not saying those things aren’t helpful. I keep a gratitude journal almost every day, and I think it's an incredible practice. And when I talk later about some of my trauma-healing practices, they will include things that are more sort of thought-based.

But what I am saying is that it’s not the whole picture. And if we don’t know what the whole picture is, when those mindset practices don’t seem to be creating the changes we’re looking for, when we keep finding ourselves falling back into the same patterns of behaviour and thoughts that disrupt our lives or make us feel crappy, when we keep having that anxiety come up when we're triggered by the same old thing, then what happens is that we end up blaming ourselves and feeling shame that we aren’t better able to use our willpower and rational thinking to do better and feel better.

So all of that said, trauma basic #4 is that trauma is something that is experienced in a person’s nervous system.

In the Huberman Lab Podcast, one of my new faves, Dr. Huberman goes deep into all the inner workings of our nervous system – it’s super fascinating. And in his first episode, he clarifies that the nervous system is not just about our brain – so the brain is one part of it, but it’s also our spinal cord, and all the connections between our brain, spinal cord, and organs of our body; plus all our connections from our organs back to our brain and spinal cord. So he describes our nervous system as this continuous loop of information between all these parts. So trauma, being something that is experienced in our nervous system, is so much broader than just something that gets cultivated and thought of in our rational brain. I mean, even within our entire brain, the rational, thinking part of it, is only one portion. 

And to explain how trauma gets experienced in our nervous systems, we need to understand our fight, flight, freeze response and how it’s the more primitive parts of our brain that are involved in the experience of trauma. 

So fight, flight, freeze: When we are facing a threat to our survival, whether real or perceived, these are the three primary responses available to us – and it’s the same for animals in the wild. This is a biological survival mechanism. Many of you probably already know this. We perceive the threat, our body becomes activated to respond to that threat. And more specifically, it's the autonomic nervous system (or ANS) within our bodies that becomes activated – and the ANS is what controls the functions in our body that we don’t consciously have to think about doing, like breathing or our digestive processes, for example. All those things just happen automatically.

So, when the ANS is activated to go into fight or flight mode, or sometimes freeze, in response to the threat, it automatically sets off various things in our bodies to “mobilize the physiological resources needed to move into action” – that’s from the book Healing Developmental Trauma. So, our blood sugar becomes elevated to increase energy, our heart rate quickens to increase blood supply, and so on. The body is getting prepared to protect itself from the threat.

And at the same time, it puts a pause on other things, like processes involved in digestion or reproduction, that aren’t needed or that we don’t want to be focusing on in the context of what the body interprets as an emergency. And that also includes some of our higher-thinking functions, because in moments of survival, our body knows it needs to be making snap decisions that could make the difference between life and death. So, that rational part of our brain can actually go offline almost, or get bypassed in any sort of decision-making in those cases.

Now, freeze, in nature, is said to be a last-ditch survival strategy, when fight or flight aren’t viable options. So Irene Lyon, who I mentioned has that 3-part trauma video series, talks about the animal that freezes – i.e., plays dead – and then is able to escape to safety when its predator is distracted. Or the animal might hide, as a way of freezing.

For humans, we have this same ability to go into this kind of freeze state that is “a highly charged but immobile defensive maneuver and protective reaction” – that’s from the Healing Developmental Trauma book.

But there’s also another aspect to the freeze response, which is “freeze as a collapsed fallback position when fight-flight is not possible.” So, for example, a baby might go into this kind of freeze when it’s powerless to either fight back or to escape the stressful situation that’s happening. And the challenge becomes when we don’t come out of that freeze state, which happens all too often with us humans.

In the wild, animals do. They come out of that freeze response after they’ve run to safety and the danger is clear, because those animals in the wild are acting entirely on their instincts. And their, as well as our, instinctual brains know to discharge all of that survival energy that was mobilized to respond to the threat once that threat has disappeared.

Instinctually, the animal knows it needs to release that survival/stress energy, because it’s not good for the body to have all that high activation and stress hormones constantly running. The body needs to come back to baseline, to balance, so it can restore itself, heal itself.

Now, the issue with us humans is that our rational brain sometimes overrides our instinctual response to come out of freeze. By the way, in case this is new to you, we have three parts of our brain, the oldest part being our reptilian brain, or the instinctual part of our brain; then our mammalian or limbic brain, which is the emotional part of our brain; and then the neocortex or cortex, which is the rational part of our brain.

And that is the order in which our brain parts developed. So, the rational part of our brain is the most newly developed part, and has developed extremely quickly given the rapid changes in our environment, but the rest of our brain systems – the instinctual and emotional systems, these older parts – haven't caught up yet.

And so, what happens is that, number one, our brain is oftentimes reacting to certain situations as though they’re life threatening – like, as though we’re being chased by the bear – when they’re actually not, therefore activating the survival response, perhaps inappropriately given the situation. 

And number two, the rational part of our brain often gets in the way of completing that natural process of moving out of that freeze state and into rest and recovery, that we know to do instinctually.

And the way our brain gets in the way is by creating these narratives in our heads, these distortions of our identities, and what we interpret those traumatic experiences to ultimately mean about us – i.e., we’re not worthy enough, we aren’t lovable, we don’t belong, I’m bad and so this is why this bad thing happened to me.

This is a really important learning that comes up again and again – that when young children feel bad, they internalize it as they are bad, they are the problem, because at that age they don’t have the cognitive capacity to understand that any differently.

And so, those ways of seeing ourselves get internalized, and that residual stress/survival energy ends up staying in the body, creating a lot of physical and mental health issues, and it can stay trapped in our body, in the memory of our cells, indefinitely unless it's finally released through processing that trauma.

So, certainly, our conscious thoughts are involved in the process of, say, developing the distortions of our identity that do often form as a result of trauma. But, as you can see, there’s so much else that’s happening in the body, in our physiology, in the development of trauma, and in the reinforcement of trauma, and therefore, then, in the healing of trauma.

And so, by understanding how trauma works and impacts us on that nervous system level – and, again yes, how the mind does become affected but how that’s still so interconnected with what’s happening in our bodies; and I’ll talk more about that in the next episode – means that we can then target our healing practices, our therapeutic interventions, on the right things, on all the levels it needs to address, instead of only focusing on “fixing” the mind. 

And, of course, others might go to the opposite end of the spectrum and not have to think about any of it at all, positive or otherwise, and maybe just focus on body-based practices, like yoga, or working out, or those types of things.

And again, it’s not to say that those things aren’t helpful, but if there’s been this cycle of both nervous system dysregulation and the development of negative self-beliefs, then looking at a more holistic solution might be more effective in seeing the changes we want for ourselves.

And at the end of the day, it’s such an individual journey and decision, so this is really to provide some information that I know I found extremely helpful, and that I was honestly really surprised wasn’t taught on a more widespread basis.

Final thoughts

Alright, so I hope that was helpful, and I hope I’ve paused here at a good time. In the next episode, we will look at the rest of the definition I shared in Part 1, which goes into what happens when we’re triggered in the present by something that reminds us of the original traumatic event, as well as some of the wide-ranging effects that trauma can have in our lives. 

I’ve linked to all the resources I mentioned in the show notes if you want to learn more, but please just remember to go slow with all of this stuff, go at your own pace. And if this episode has left you feeling kinda like, wow, that’s some tough shit to think about and feel and process, I am with you there too. I know how daunting it can feel. It’s so very understandable.

And also, please know that we can absolutely heal from the really challenging, painful things we might have experienced and still be holding onto. We can become more resilient than we might ever have imagined. I know that has definitely been the case for me. And it’s why I’m so passionate about sharing about this trauma-healing work. And we can get to the point where we’re actually able to take in this trauma education and be like, okay, so that's what's happening, and not be as affected by it.

Alright, you can grab the show notes and links to all the resources at You can also connect with me on Instagram @janicehoimages and @natureimmersed. And on Facebook @thesoulsworkpodcast

Okay, y’all. Until next time, take care. Lots of love and self-love.