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The Thing About Trauma

In my newsletter this past week, I wrote about the three underlying causes of chronic disease: nutritional deficiency, toxicity, and trauma. While the first two are fairly cut and dry, this last one - trauma - is much stickier, and even though I've read books, watched documentaries, and listened to podcasts on the subject, I'm still not sure I understand it completely.

Even a few hours after I'd sent the newsletter, I started questioning myself about what I'd just written. And with that said, I'd like to reserve the right to change my mind about everything I'm about to write here. This is uncharted territory for me, and I'm writing only to make sense of my current thoughts, not to declare what is absolute truth. These are my opinions today, and they are subject to change as I gain more life experience and understanding.

What is trauma? Merriam-Webster defines it like this: a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury. In other places it's been described as a chronic psychic state resulting from a near-death experience or extreme abuse.

What gets tricky is when folks start assigning this word to events in their lives that might seem justifiably traumatic to them, but rather humdrum and unimpressive to the general population. Personally, I've been through some really crappy events in life that were not insignificant. These experiences felt traumatic to me and have most definitely resulted in some negative physical/medical manifestations.

But compared to a Holocaust survivor, a child who has been used and abused in the sex-trafficking trade, a war-torn veteran who has witnessed all manner of horrific and ghastly events, or a starving orphan who has lost everything and everyone in a natural disaster, my troubles seem petty and totally self-absorbed. In comparison to others, my life is easy, privileged, and comfortable. What do I have to complain about, other than the occasional unfairness and injustices of life that we all experience?

Is the death of your family dog traumatic? What about being fired from your job? A sudden breakup? The loss of a child or parent? Rejection by a peer group? A heated argument with your spouse? An unkind remark about you or your body?

I would say, no. These events are not trauma. They are sad, emotional, sometimes tragic and temporarily devastating, and certainly difficult, but they are not life-threatening or physically injurious. Experiences like these are normal human events that are part of this earthly package bestowed on all of us. There isn't a person alive or dead who hasn't suffered through something like these, or worse.

But nowadays, we are becoming coddled with our many mental woes. It is now admirable to be a victim. We are expected and encouraged to ruminate often on our feelings. We are called heroic for sharing our history of grievances, commended for identifying the injustices done to us in the past, and celebrated for owning our dependency on psychiatric medications. This modern social trend of labeling nearly everything as trauma, anxiety, depression, or PTSD is dangerous. It has made us soft, self-focused, and emotionally paralyzed, when our default setting should actually be recovery and resilience. Look at our ancestors and the hardships they endured! What was temporary sorrow or heartbreak back then is now reason enough for us to shut down completely and seek out pharmaceutical interventions just to function day to day. When did we go from rugged Americans to such delicate flowers?

Side note: I am not saying mental health medications are never warranted, but I also know they don't ultimately solve the root problem. They only help people cope. I believe we can do more than cope. We can overcome! Medications can be a step in that direction, but they are not the end solution, and it troubles me to see "mental health awareness" efforts promoting the normalization of therapy and medication but not simple dietary and lifestyle change.

On one extreme we are told our trauma has done irreparable damage, and that we will carry it with us forever. On the other end of the spectrum, we are told to "snap out of it" and move on. Somewhere in between is the sweet spot, the place where you are allowed to grieve but with the assurance that you are going to be all right, and things will get better in time.

The reason why this issue is important, and why I want to understand it better, is because there does seem to be some connection between emotionally devastating events (be they traumatic or not) and chronic disease. People who want to optimize their health reach a certain level of success, and then stall. It's like there is some kind of invisible stronghold in their lives that keeps them stuck in a place of paralysis. Not only that, but it also impacts their physiology.

There are many books written on this topic - - some I've read in their entirety and some I've only skimmed. Emotion Code, The Body Code, The Healing Code...all of these try to address the concept of "trapped emotions" from negative events and the lasting physiological effect they can have on the body. I can't explain it fully, and there are parts to each of these therapies that makes my conservative Christian self feel a little on edge, but there must be some truth to this mind-body-emotion connection. I do believe our unchecked emotions can, in time, make us very, very sick. And if I want to encourage others in their health journey, this is an area that can't be sidestepped.

So how do we heal from experiences that pulled the proverbial rug out from underneath us? I wish I knew fully! I don't think talk therapy is the answer. Rehashing those painful memories just rips open old wounds and forces you to relive them. I also don't believe that you can just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and pretend nothing happened. As I read earlier today, God gives us emotions so we will be motivated to do something! Leave the relationship. Quit the job. Defend yourself. Run to safety. Cry. Seek solace and comfort in a safe person or sacred place. But don't just sit there and wallow in misery. It seems to me many of these medications, though perhaps helpful for a time, actually numb us to the pain, keep us imprisoned, and prevent us from acting wisely on our own behalf.

Maybe we need less therapy and fewer drugs, and more encouragement to forgive, to release, to mourn, to trust, to love, to take measured risks, and to move ahead with hope, courage, and thankfulness. Maybe trauma isn't an inescapable destiny, but a painful teacher and an opportunity for growth. Whatever it is, or isn't, I don't want to get comfortable in it or make it a permanent part of my identity. There is too much life to live!

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