Let’s talk about trauma - what is it, why we need to talk about it, and how do we heal from it?
Updated: Sep 28, 2021
Trauma* is any experience that we are not equipped to cope with - experiences that overwhelm our current emotional capacity. By this definition, that can include not only things like war, sexual assault, and physical violence, but also things like emotional or financial or spiritual abuse, body shaming, poverty, emotional or physical neglect, betrayal...the list is endless.
Why talk about it?
Unhealed trauma is playing out all around us. I know it was playing out all my life and I didn’t even realize it. My anxiety, perfectionism, sleeplessness, relationship choices and more were trauma responses.
We have all had experiences we were ill equipped to cope with, albeit some more distressing than others. So it is logical that unhealed trauma will impact those around us. We see it in our own families, on social media, in our communities. Trauma begets trauma, and the cycle continues.
Sometimes our trauma responses are not even necessarily our own. Generational trauma is passed down. The study of epigenetics shows us the impact of trauma on DNA. There is also abundant evidence that trauma is passed down through behavior. An abuser is highly likely to have been abused themselves. And even without abuse, we can see in ourselves the traumatic behaviors we swore we would never emulate.
The amazing news is that we are living in a time where there are so many healing modalities available! There are so many tools available to support as we heal trauma. Though the trauma may have been inherited, it does not have to be passed on. We can become the cycle breakers.
For me, my commitment to healing my trauma is a profound way that I can honor the sacrifices and struggles of my ancestors. There is so much I can do for my family lineage. But one thing I can not do, as badly as I may want to, is make anyone else heal. I can’t heal anyone. I can’t force them to commit to healing.
What can we do when loved ones don’t seem ready or committed to healing? We can maintain our own boundaries. We can inspire them by example. We can create the safety and environment that invites them to heal. And most of all, we can move forward and not delay our own healing because of fear that we will leave loved ones behind.
How do we respond to trauma?
When we experience trauma, we experience it with our whole body. Whatever trauma we experienced, it was something we were not equipped to handle. Whatever we experienced, it was not limited solely to a cerebral, emotional, or physical experience. If we experienced violence, it was not the physical body alone that was wounded. If we experienced psychological bullying, it was not the mind alone - the body experienced increased heart rate, respiration, and more. There are experts in this arena that can shed far more light on this subject - Resmaa Menakem, Bessel A Van der Kolk, and more. When I learned how the body stores trauma it helped me understand so much of my life.
Since we experience trauma with our whole bodies, when we seek to heal trauma, we need to heal our whole bodies. Body, mind and spirit.
When we experience trauma, our bodies are hardwired to respond in specific ways. The reaction is automatic, whether it is responding to trauma or perceived trauma - the body opts for flight, fight or freeze.
The body chooses which of those responses to play out. It chooses the best response based on what the body knows. I have been in situations where I felt betrayed by my own body. In particular when I froze. And I assumed that was due to bad judgment or weakness on my part - which led to shame. Understanding trauma has helped me recognize that I can trust my body and my autonomic nervous system, and that I can trust my body to choose the best option based on whatever my capacity is at the moment. My job is not to second guess my body but to do what I can to increase my capacity.
So then, part of healing is learning how to trust our bodies and ourselves. For a trauma survivor, trust is very difficult to experience already. It takes time and consistency to build trust, whether with others or with ourselves.
Epigenetics also points to the real possibility that our ancestral flight-fight-freeze responses are also partially inherited.
Possible trauma responses:
Fight may look like:
Rage, crying, aggression, violence or desire to be violent, balled up fists, tense muscles ready to spring into action, glaring, burning/knotted feeling in stomach, wanting to kill or hurt or destroy.
Having a “temper” is not a fixed state or attribute.
Flight may look like:
Restless legs/limbs, fidgeting, anxious feelings, repetitive actions, darting eyes, extremities are numb or tingly, feeling trapped, need to exercise excessively
You may have normalized this as “always needing to be doing something” or “busy.”
Freeze may look like:
SIlence, feeling stuck, sense of dread, holding breath, inaction, heaviness, going pale
This response can be accompanied by shame. Consider reframing it as an energetic shield, a loving protection from the further consequences that could come from fight or flight and potential overwhelm.
There is a 4th possibility often called fawn, particularly if flight, freeze or fight didn’t stop traumatic experiences in the past - this is also a trauma response.
How do we heal trauma?
First, before we consider the how, reflect on this:
Whatever trauma I experienced IS NOT MY FAULT.
My healing is my responsibility.
Do I have it switched? Instead of taking responsibility for my healing, am I taking responsibility for the trauma? And instead of relinquishing control over what happened to me, am I relinquishing control over what I can do about it?
Reconnection of body, mind and spirit
To heal, our bodies must be integrated, connected. Flight, fight or freeze - any of these responses also requires a certain disconnection and disassociation. This allows us to cope with the trauma. Over time, it becomes a programmed response. We disconnect and/ or disassociate when we experience stress. Grounding the body - becoming aware of the present movement and learning how to stay present without disconnecting or disassociating - is a healing practice that helps us to create a new response.
The key, I have found, is developing, a little bit at a time, a repertoire of small healing rituals that reintegrate my body, mind, and spirit.
If talk therapy alone has not been healing, it may be because it is solely addressing the cerebral and perhaps emotional aspects of trauma without integrating the body. In my experience, modalities like yoga and/or essential oils that encourage awareness and integration of the body and spirit as a whole lead to more healing. Or modalities like talk therapy combined with EMDR.
To heal, we must also create space for what has been stored to come to the surface to be released. A body that is full of stress and tension 24/7 doesn’t have any room to process and release trauma.
Am I creating time for rest? Am I so busy that I can’t or don’t tune in with myself?
If we consider all of these aspects in totality, one way to describe them is reparenting. This is how we develop the resources we need to cope with trauma and it’s after effects. As parents, we ideally seek to address all the needs of a child - physically, emotionally, intellectually/mentally, even spiritually. Regardless of how old we were when we first experienced trauma - when we were first flooded and overwhelmed with an experience beyond our capacity, we can parent ourselves now. We can provide ourselves with the tender loving caring environment we need to learn new skills and expand our capacity.
How can essential oils help?
Part of reparenting for me has been connecting with mother earth. Science reveals more all the time about why connecting with nature is so calming, and about the impact of that connection on our well being. Regardless, tuning in to my innate indegenous ancestral wisdom tells me I need to connect to my mother earth.
One of the most powerful and convenient ways I have been able to connect to her is through pure essential oils.** Experiencing and incorporating small rituals using essential oils has been one powerful way to reintegrate my body, mind, and spirit. Inhaling the oils is a whole body experience that soothes the emotions, calms the body, and helps us create new neural connections in the brain. Doing that regularly has brought so much emotional healing into my life. Trauma often causes us to live in the past or the future, or to disassociate from the present in some other way. Essential oils also encourage an awareness of the present, and help us to ground and live in the now.
Different essential oils have their own unique physical and emotional properties. Here are several that can help:
Balance, the oil of grounding;
Use to ground the body, to stay stable and connected to the present. Excellent for those who cope with stress through dissociation and disconnection, or who struggle with anxious feelings that show up as anger and agitation. Also a good choice for someone who isn't yet open to trauma healing but is open to trying an oil
Vetiver - oil of centering and descent;
Use when constantly feeling scattered, when brain wheels won’t stop turning, for overthinking. Allows us to be rooted. It challenges the need to escape pain and helps to discover the emotional roots of our trauma responses.***
Copaiba- oil of unveiling;
Use when already incorporating and growing self care and self love. As it unveils, it can bring up buried trauma - trust your intuition about when to use it.*** Self awareness work is vulnerable (which is why we often avoid it). When we are engaged in healing and keep peeling back the layer, we may reveal unresolved pain. Copaiba is a great support for this.
Black pepper - oil of unmasking;
Use when trauma response is to mask or disguise our true selves, whether by not living in our true identity, by using substances or practices to bury pain (addiction), or by hiding self to receive love.
Black Spruce - oil of stability;
Use when struggling with fear and anxious feelings as a trauma response. Instability in childhood is a trauma - whether that is an emotionally unstable caregiver, money, shelter or food instability, or abuse. Black spruce can support releasing the fears associated with that instability -whether they are our own or inherited from ancestors.
Douglas Fir - oil of generational wisdom;
Use when ready to break free of harmful generational patterns. Also encourages healthy, boundaried connection with one’s own family.
Jasmine - oil of sexual balance;
Use to reclaim healthy sexuality and intimacy and release trauma responses from sexual trauma.
All emotional oils - including the curated blends Cheer, Passion, Forgive, Console, Peace, Motivate - these are all useful as we ascend cyclically through healing trauma and experience a variety of emotional responses as we do.
Comment here or message me with your thoughts. I would love to hear from you!
*As with everything I share, I am not an expert. I am simply a woman on her own healing journey sharing my ever deepening and expanding Truth. The definition of trauma I have used here is not reflective of the definition embraced by the APA or what is included in the DSM.
**My suggestions and recommendations are based on doTERRA essential oils. Here's why.
***You don’t have to necessarily know everything about your trauma or dig in to be able to process or release. In my experience, sometimes it is important to understand details, and often it is not necessary or helpful.