Hala Khouri talking about transforming trauma

Transforming Trauma–The Gift in the Wound

Investigating the impact of trauma in our lives can be an important part of healing our anxiety. Unresolved traumatic experiences from our past can fuel (and be the source of) our anxiety, unbeknownst to us. Sometimes people don’t realize that some of the experiences they have had may have been traumatic and could be the root causes of their suffering.

As a trauma survivor, trauma therapist, and trauma-informed yoga teacher working with survivors for almost two decades, I have many thoughts on the topic of healing trauma. I have worked with people who have endured the unimaginable. I have seen people triumph over trauma and come out better on the other side of it, people become trapped in the grasp of trauma unable to come out, and everything in between. Ultimately, I believe that we can all find some healing from trauma, and, with the right information and support, let ourselves be transformed by it in a meaningful way. As my teacher Peter Levine says, “Trauma is a fact of life, but it doesn’t have to be a life sentence.” He goes on to say, “I believe not only that trauma is curable, but that the healing process can be a catalyst for profound awakening.” When I think of trauma, I don’t just think of the negative impacts of it, I also think about the ways we grow and learn when have to deal with overwhelming situations. My intention is not to bypass the pain and horror that trauma can inflict on people, but I also don’t want to bypass peoples’ resilience and capacity.

In my presentations on trauma, I often show a slide of a diamond and a piece of coal, with the phrase, “A diamond is just a piece of coal that handled stress exceptionally well.” It is only by being exposed to the stress of extreme heat and pressure that the coal can transform. The stress of life shapes us as well, yet none of us are perfect diamonds—we have parts that are shiny, parts that are broken, parts still covered in coal. Trauma shapes us. As we reflect on this, please keep in mind both ends of the healing process—the coal and the diamond—and the spectrum in between. It’s important to consider what has shaped you and its implications for who you are today. I also want you to reflect on how trauma might have impacted those around you. If the pain is fresh, deep, or in any way overwhelming, I encourage you to seek the support of a therapist. It’s not always appropriate to work with trauma on one’s own; you deserve support!

Trauma is anything that overwhelms our capacity to cope and respond and leaves us feeling helpless, hopeless, and out of control. As I mentioned before, it is not the event itself that is traumatic, it’s our response to it that determines if it was traumatic or not. Not all trauma comes from what most people would consider a major experience—some traumas are what we might call “little t” traumas (as opposed to “big T” Traumas). “Little t” traumas may not be as major, but they can overwhelm us and shape us nonetheless. I often share that I have “hair trauma.” I say this not to joke about trauma but to share that even seemingly small experiences we have can have a significant impact. You see, I have very frizzy hair. I grew up in Miami, Florida, which has 100 percent humidity most of the time. My mom used to cut my hair. She is not a professional hairdresser. I had short hair that just seemed to puff around my head like a disheveled mass no matter what I did. This may not sound overwhelming, but to an adolescent girl, where concerns around peer group acceptance feel like life or death, it certainly is! Coupled with being an immigrant and feeling like an outsider, my hair preoccupied me for most of my adolescence. I was never part of the popular group of kids, and I often felt excluded and judged. This experience shaped my identity, and to this day there’s still a part of me that feels like I don’t fit in.

Three Categories of Trauma

I think about trauma in three categories: shock, developmental, and systemic. We are all shaped by at least one of these categories. We can experience “big T” or “little t” traumas in each. Sometimes we don’t realize that certain things are traumatic because the traumatic experience is all we know and we don’t have the perspective to realize that our experience may be out of the ordinary. As you read through the next sections, reflect on your own life experience and what has shaped you. Remember, just because a lot of bad stuff might have happened to you doesn’t mean you are traumatized. If you had good resources and support, you may have been buffered against the negative impact.

Shock Trauma

Shock traumas are events that happen to us. These are things like car accidents, medical trauma, experiencing or witnessing violence, natural disasters, divorce, and the death of loved ones. These events can overwhelm us and when they do, we defend, dissociate, or find other strategies to cope as best we can. (The possum being chased by the fox in chapter 1 experienced a shock trauma.) When something happens that we can’t cope with and respond to, it can cause us to go into a freeze or collapse state. These are both protective mechanisms that our bodies use to try and keep us safe. Freeze is a rigid immobility response. People can experience this after a car accident or in the face of a threat that they can’t deal with. Once the event is over, if they’re not able to discharge the energy from the body, it can get “stuck” and impact them indefinitely. They might find themselves panicky and on high alert each time they’re in a car or constantly worried that something bad is about to happen.

The collapse response is similar to freeze but looks a bit different. Collapse is a shutting-down experience. (Remember the ON/OFF graph? It’s the OFF part.) Collapse is common with sexual trauma. It’s a survival strategy: if someone is doing something to your body that you don’t want but feel powerless to stop, one of the most protective things you can do is shut down and leave your body so you don’t feel anything. This is an involuntary reflex—it’s not something one chooses to do. Often sexual trauma survivors feel ashamed because they may not have done anything to stop the abuse. This is because they froze or collapsed. Their nervous system got overwhelmed and, to protect them, shut down all feeling. Collapse is necessary at the time yet becomes a problem when it’s happening in situations that are not necessarily traumatic.

I had a client who experienced molestation by a family member as a child. (This is a shock trauma that was chronic and repeated.) When it was happening, she would “fall asleep,” which was a collapse response that allowed her to dissociate from the abuse. As an adult, she found that if she was in situations that became physically intimate, she would get spacey and leave her body only to realize later that she had engaged in a sexual experience without actually consenting to it. In some cases she wanted to be intimate, in others she didn’t, but mostly she was confused. She didn’t have the embodied awareness to know what she wanted in order to make an empowered choice. It was as if her internal GPS would just turn off in intimate situations.

Conversation around “enthusiastic consent” is so important in order to ensure that all parties in a sexual situation are fully present and truly want each step of the interaction. Sexual assault survivors may not always be vocal about whether they want sexual intimacy or not, and people can take advantage of that, both knowingly and unknowingly. True consent should be active and positive, it’s not just the absence of saying no. As my client worked through her trauma, she was able to stay grounded and present when in intimate situations. Rather than dissociating, she used the self-regulation resources that she practiced using during our sessions to stay present in her body when on a date. Grounding was especially important for her. Then she was able to start setting boundaries and vocalize what she needed and wanted. Much of her work was done when she found a supportive partner who was familiar and safe. He supported her by checking in consistently when they were being intimate to make sure she was comfortable. He encouraged her to set boundaries and ask for what she wanted, and he was patient when she didn’t know what she wanted and needed time to figure it out.

Developmental Trauma

Another source of trauma does not have to do with a specific event but rather results from our relationships with a primary caretaker. Developmental trauma occurs when there is an ongoing misattunement with one’s primary caretaker. A vital part of healthy childhood development is feeling cared for and responded to by our caretaker—a parent, grandparent, or any other caring adult. For example, an infant’s cries should ideally be responded to with warmth and a desire to assess and meet the baby’s need. Most babies have very basic needs—food, comfort, and safety. Humans are born 100 percent dependent on their caretakers for survival for years, so attunement is literally a life-or-death need. For most other animals, this isn’t the case. A baby horse, for example, can walk within two hours of birth and is able to eat on its own within two weeks. It doesn’t rely on the mother for its sole sustenance and survival for too long.

Human babies can’t do anything for themselves. If our basic needs aren’t met fairly consistently or predictably, we can develop a sense that people and the world are unsafe, unpredictable, or unresponsive. This leaves a lasting imprint on us, and for many people with developmental trauma, it takes work to figure out how to be in a healthy relationship where their needs are met. Love and pain get coupled together, and people can find themselves drawn into unhealthy relationships with people who have similar traits to their original caretaker. Relationships end up being the cause of much pain and anxiety, yet they also can be the source of healing.

Healing developmental trauma has to happen in relationship. It can’t just happen on the therapy couch or meditation cushion. We have to actually learn how to relate with others in a healthier way, and we can only learn that by being in relationships that give us the space to make mistakes safely—to “practice badly,” so to speak. Whether it’s learning a new language or learning how to ride a bike, gaining any new skill requires us to be willing and able to be bad at it before we can get good at it. This goes for relationships too. Working with a therapist can be the first step—the clear boundaries of a therapeutic relationship can create a lowstakes environment without too many unknown variables. The next step is to figure out how to translate that work into relationships outside of the therapy room. Marcia’s story offers a good example.

Marcia grew up with a mother who was emotionally unstable and had bipolar disorder. As a baby, when Marcia would cry, her mother would shout at her that she was selfish and withdraw from her. Sometimes she would be left with a soiled diaper for hours. It didn’t take too long for Marcia to stop crying altogether because it never yielded a good result. As she got older, she learned to avoid doing anything that might upset her mother. When she would do something that disturbed her mother, she would get screamed at or hit. For a toddler this is incredibly overwhelming, and Marcia became immobilized by her anxiety. She felt extremely ashamed anytime she committed something her mother saw as an indiscretion, even though most of these things were developmentally appropriate behaviors like wanting to be picked up, feeling scared at night, or making a mess. Marcia learned that her needs were an inconvenience and that her role was to meet her mother’s needs. That was her imprint of what a relationship is that she carried into her adult life.

Inevitably, in her adult relationships Marcia had a very hard time finding mutually supportive friends and partners. She had no idea how to navigate having her own needs in relationships and was mostly focused on not upsetting the other person. She didn’t know what behavior was acceptable and what wasn’t, and she constantly second-guessed herself. Relationships of any kind made her feel anxious and overwhelmed. She also tended to be drawn to people who were emotionally unpredictable and volatile—they felt familiar and matched her original experience of what relationships are. Marcia had to work really hard to figure out both how to choose more stable people and how to show up in relationships in a healthier way. With the support of a skilled therapist who could offer consistency and warmth, she was able to explore her issues and get more clarity on the role she tends to play in relationships. She practiced communicating her needs and setting boundaries. Eventually, she was able to experience healthy mirroring and consistent warmth from her therapist, which began to give her the space to not feel so anxious while relating to another person. This was important because as she got more regulated, she could imagine approaching other relationships feeling more grounded and empowered in herself.

Her next step in healing was to practice, in very small ways, showing up differently in her existing relationships. She practiced setting boundaries and expressing her needs. Sometimes this would go well and the other person would respect the request, and sometimes it backfired and the other person would get angry and push back. She had to end some relationships with people who weren’t able to participate in a healthy dynamic. She also began to look for healthier people to engage with. She started dating someone who was very different from the emotionally abusive men that were typically her type. Joel was warm and kind. Marcia wasn’t initially attracted to him; in fact, she found him annoying. Her therapist gently reminded her that guys that were “her type” replicated her trauma. Maybe someone she didn’t think she’d like would afford her a chance to shift her pattern and try something new. Marcia was able to express herself with Joel without anxiety. He was consistent and didn’t lose control if Marcia did something that bothered him. He was the perfect person for Marcia to “practice badly” with. Ultimately Joel wasn’t the right person for Marcia, but he was an important teacher because without his extra gentleness, she would not have been able to learn the things she needed in order to show up for her next relationship in a healthy way. Richard was a better match for Marcia. He had a stronger personality than Joel, but was kind as well. With Marcia’s new confidence and self-awareness, she could be with someone like Richard without losing herself. But there would have been no Richard without Joel.

Eventually Marcia was able to understand that her mother was a trauma survivor who was doing the best she could with the tools she had. Marcia’s mother was physically abused as a child. She was never attuned to herself, so she didn’t know how to do that for Marcia. Because she didn’t get the support she needed, she passed her trauma on to Marcia. This is one way that trauma gets passed on from generation to generation, as discussed earlier.

Parents don’t have to be perfectly healed to be able to do a good job raising their kids. Donald Winnicott, a child psychologist, coined the term “the good enough mother.” He found in his research on attachment that although it is very important that children be attuned to and responded to, it is also important that they find age-appropriate ways to self-soothe and meet their own needs. He found that attunement need not be perfect; in fact, it’s better if a child learns to deal with “manageable disappointments” at appropriate stages of development in order to feel their own sense of competency. So as you consider your own childhood, use caution and don’t blame your parents for everything. And if you’re a parent, don’t feel like you have to do everything perfectly either! I have to admit, before having children of my own, when I would hear clients talk about some of the ways that their parents failed them, I felt a lot of judgment for the parents. Now that I’m a parent, when I hear stories of parents’ shortcomings I have a lot more empathy. Being a parent is hard!

It’s possible to feel that you have some development trauma even if you think that all your needs were met as a child. For example, if you had smothering or overly fearful caretakers, you
may not have been given enough opportunity to experience your own resilience and independence. If we aren’t given a chance to experience our own competency, the world can feel overwhelming and unmanageable. This tends to be more of an issue these days when some parents can track their children’s every move on a cell phone and stay in touch with them twenty-four seven. The terms helicopter parent and snowplow parent have been used to describe how some modern parents tend to watch over their kids way too much (like a helicopter) and/or try and remove any potential obstacles from their children’s path (like a snowplow). This is more possible for some families than others, of course; not all people have the same access or ability to overprotect their children in this way. Children need the right balance of challenge and protection to grow and thrive.

Systemic Trauma

Systemic trauma is caused by the overwhelm of having to deal with issues that stem from larger systems and institutions that are meant to care for us and protect us. These include health care, education, the criminal justice system, financial institutions, government, and culture, to name a few. Unfortunately, at least in the United States, these systems benefit some and harm many. Discrimination and oppression also become normalized by cultural beliefs and enforced through social norms and behaviors. Things like classism, ableism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, mental health stigma, and more are very, very stressful to the people on the receiving end.

One heartbreaking example of systemic shock trauma is police violence against Black people. The disproportionate killing of Black people by police is traumatic to the Black community, whether they have been directly involved in this violence or not. Black people are up to six times more likely to be fatally shot by law enforcement than white people. They are more likely to be stopped by police and questioned and searched without reason. Many Black people have to maintain a constant hypervigilance when out in the world, whether they are anticipating the potential for violence from law enforcement or being perceived as a threat by non-Black people who may call law enforcement on them.

Black parents (and non-Black parents of Black children) worry constantly about the safety of their children. They have to have “the talk” with their children starting as early as age eight—about the fact that not all police officers are safe and, for example, that they cannot play with a toy gun because someone might think it is real (as in the case of Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old Black boy who was playing with a toy gun by himself in a Cleveland park when he was fatally shot by an officer who claimed to have felt threatened by the boy after only two seconds on the scene). They often live in a constant, daily state of fear that they or their children could be hurt or killed by the very people who are supposed to protect them. If this is not your lived reality, take a moment to pause and sit with how this systemic experience of trauma might exacerbate a person’s anxiety.

All the personal therapy and self-help books in the world are not going to let a Black parent feel totally safe with their child out in a world where they are targets. Most parents worry about their children already; having to worry that the systems that are allegedly put in place to help us might actually harm us is an added and overwhelming burden. That’s the thing with systemic trauma: it can’t be healed just with personal work. Personal work can help people cope with the stress, but until the laws, practices and culture change, people subject to identity-based violence will have to remain on high alert.

Systemic inequality and oppression can also result in developmental trauma. Consider these scenarios: A child is crying because she is scared, but no one comes to her aid because she is in an understaffed day care center since parents each have to work two minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet for the family. Or maybe the child is being shuffled through the foster care system because her single mom is in jail after being racially profiled for a crime she did not commit. In both of these scenarios, the parents may have the emotional capacity to attune to the child, but because of poverty, lack of societal investment in social supports like affordable day care, or racial injustice, they can’t be there. What about a child who is raised as a boy but knows herself to be a girl? Maybe this child expresses very early on that she is a girl, but because her family doesn’t understand what it means to be transgender, she is told that she is a boy and is discouraged from expressing feminine behaviors or preferences. Perhaps this is what the parents are told to do by psychologists and their pastor. In this example, the caregivers are trying to do the right thing, but inadvertently they are misattuning to their child.

For some people, the threat of systemic trauma might not be immediate physical threats but other types of threats to safety and well-being. Women get paid less than men for comparable work. Low-income people don’t generally have access to good health care, housing, or schools. Black people are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated. People who are not citizens can be separated from their families and forced to leave the country without any notice. Transgender and gender nonconforming people don’t always have a safe bathroom available to them or adequate health-care options. Formerly incarcerated people often become ineligible for low-income housing and other types of assistance. Many of those listed above are also at risk of being the victims of violence based on their identity.

These examples complicate a trauma framework that focuses simply on individual and familial psychology and reveal how systemic and cultural dynamics can impact people profoundly. Most of these scenarios are currently legal and thus upheld systemically and institutionally. It’s legal to have only gendered bathrooms, for example. Until recently, sentencing laws were different for drugs typically used by people of color versus white people. Public schools are funded by property taxes, so schools in affluent areas get a lot more resources than schools in poor areas. Quality health care is expensive, and there are no laws that protect low-income people from inadequate health-care providers. Many of the things built into our policies and systems are a reflection or even a cause of cultural norms. Even when the laws change (like sentencing laws, for example) bias lingers in the culture, past harms and unfairness aren’t necessarily addressed, and the dynamics don’t necessarily improve.

It is important to note that systemic advantages and disadvantages are not earned. I did nothing to earn my light skin or the money I inherited from my parents, for example. Similarly, a transgender person does not “earn” getting harassed simply by walking down the street and a Black person does not “earn” a harsher sentence than a white person for the same offense.

If you find yourself getting defensive around these ideas, it could be because you benefit from these systems. It’s often harder to see discrimination if it’s not aimed at you. So please bear with me here if these ideas rile you up. Use the tools I’ve shared; notice your sensations, impulses, and emotions. Try to stay resourced so that you can be curious about your reaction and what it may reveal to you. Just because I might be implying that you benefit from these systems doesn’t mean you haven’t seriously struggled in your life. It also doesn’t mean you created these unfair systems. And it doesn’t mean that you don’t benefit from one system while being oppressed by another.

Some people don’t believe in the impacts of systemic trauma because they were able to get themselves out of poverty or a life of marginalization, crime, or addiction. They may have a hard time empathizing with those who don’t have the same strength, determination, or opportunities. This sort of exceptionalism is tricky because it reaffirms the idea of the “American dream,” which says that anyone can make it if they try hard enough. Some people certainly experience this, but, until the playing field is fair, the dream is deceptive. Research has shown that the idea that we live in a meritocracy—where anyone can succeed if they try—is a myth. I have immense respect for people who were able to create abundant, meaningful lives even if they grew up with very little opportunity, but I’m interested in a world where no one has to dig themselves out of a ditch in order to feel human or be treated with dignity. I want us to change the rule, not celebrate the exceptions to the rule.

Ultimately we are all harmed by systems of inequality in some way. The book, Peace from Anxiety, was written in 2020, during the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic. At the time of this writing, hundreds of thousands of people have died, tens of millions of people are unemployed in the US alone, and essential workers are risking their lives every day to keep the world running. Older people, people with disabilities, people of color, low-income people, and people without access to quality health care are being disproportionately impacted. Among other things, the pandemic is revealing that until the most vulnerable are cared for, no one can be safe. Unless we find a way to protect everyone, this virus will continue to spread. And until we find a way to take care of essential workers with adequate protection, health care, and paid sick leave, they will not be able to do their work, which provides the basic needs and infrastructure we all rely on. Many of these essential workers do work that is unseen and underappreciated—such as health-care workers and first responders, people in waste management, those who work in grocery stores and pharmacies, food production and agricultural workers, transportation and postal workers, people in manufacturing, and mental health providers.

Research shows that in countries with higher income inequality, everyone fares worse. Plus, just knowing that some of the advantages many of us have come at the expense of others is psychologically disturbing. It takes a certain amount of denial to deal with that. I know each time I buy cheap clothing because it’s what I can afford at the time, I feel guilty knowing the workers who made the clothes were probably not paid a fair wage. When my husband and I bought our first home, I felt conflicted owning land that was stolen from the Indigenous peoples who originally inhabited the area. Even though we donate money to the local Tongva tribe, I still sit with the discomfort being complicit in an unjust system.

Reflection on the roles we play in systems of inequality as well as the ways we’ve internalized some of the values and messages they give us is one key to our collective healing from overwhelm and anxiety—how we can all heal together as a society, culture, and world. None of us alive today created the oppressive systems that surround us, but together we can change them so that everyone is treated with dignity and respect and has access to what they need. Call me an idealist, but I’ve dedicated my life to this goal. We may not see it in our lifetime, but we can be part of setting things into motion for future generations. Just because I might not see the fruits of my labor isn’t a reason to give up.

transforming trauma from peace from anxiety book cover

Peace from Anxiety

From Peace from Anxiety: Get Grounded, Build Resilience, and Stay Connected Amidst the Chaos by Hala Khouri © 2021 by Hala Khouri. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com.

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