What I’ve come to understand is that trauma is created when, and wherever we have created separation in ourselves. Separation is created when we have had any kind of experience where our feeling response was traumatic, meaning more painful, or fearful than we were able to tolerate in that moment. Our response was to separate from ourselves ‘in’ the experience, so separation is created when our consciousness detaches from the present moment experience. This means that consciousness separates from the body and in so doing separates from time.
There are any number of ways in which our feelings – at the time of the experience, are too much to bear. If the feelings of an experience are too overwhelming for us, we separate ourselves from them in order to not have to experience them. In order to do that, we have to trap the feelings and attempt to stop them moving. What we do in effect is to abandon our ‘self’ that is in the moment of the experience and cut off from it, leaving it there. This is reflected perhaps in South American indigenous people, post colonization by the Spanish and Portuguese, beginning to use their word susto, literally “soul loss” to describe the traumas they were experiencing.
Peter Levine in his comparative work with the animal kingdom identifies something like this separation as tonic immobility and says that humans experience this frozen state as helpless terror and panic. Levine states that part of the benefit to an animal in response to a predator for example, is to not have to experience the pain or terror of it’s own death. Clearly this indicates that the consciousness of the animal has separated from it’s body where the kill is occurring. Indeed, this extreme form of dissociation has been described by those experiencing traumatic incidents as feeling like leaving the body, and going dead.
It is now known that on a neurological level trauma causes a sudden spike in the levels of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline both of which have been shown to temporarily shut down the hippocampus. With the hippocampus offline the brain loses the capacity to form explicit memories. These are the autobiographical memories that are formed through our focused attention of experience and available to conscious recall. However, the body does form implicit memory of the experience from the multitude of data taken in unconsciously at the time through the senses. These memories are then stored without context of when or how they got there.
It seems important to make the explicit point that it is at the level of feelings that trauma is experienced. So let me briefly define ‘feelings’ as I see them. Broadly speaking I am speaking of feelings as how we directly experience life moment to moment, as opposed to thought, which is broadly speaking interpretive and emotion which is reactive. Feeling is the means of our immediate experience of each moment, the level at which our inner and outer experiences directly meet.
If we think of this in energetic terms, feelings are simply vibrational tones in our consciousness, moving in a particular form and frequency; they move in a moment to moment response to experience, and if allowed to continue movement, would continue to change. In order to stop a feeling, we have to stop the feeling moving and trap it in the very form and frequency that we weren’t willing to feel. So, in fact in trauma, we end up holding in us the feeling that we found traumatizing and weren’t able to be present with in the original experience.
To prevent ourselves experiencing these feelings, we also have to deny having them. This denial of our experience compounds the separation in us from the actual part of us that is in the experience. Creating denial in this way further pushes the experience away from conscious awareness, and maintains the effort to hold the feeling still, thus trapping it. When trauma happens, particularly when another person is involved, shame arises in us forming a secondary layer of separation. This happens because shame itself is an intolerable feeling.