For Lis’ Book ClubI’ve selected a book I’m deeply impressed about. For those who have been following my blog for a while now, know by now how much I love reading books as much as I love sharing books with others. This book pick might seem not an easy read but I promise: if you’ve ever wondered about what trauma does to people and how it appears in our lives, this book might be something for you. In What Happened To You?, Oprah Winfrey talks with Dr. Perry about trauma, resilience and how we can heal from out deepest pain.
Personal stories versus science
I’ll admit that I didn’t know a lot about trauma and how it shows up in our lives. Until very recently I had the idea that trauma had to be a big, gigantic thing experienced. I considered it as a heavy topic related to experiences like rape, racism, or abuse. After reading the book I realized I missed out on a lot. Not only does the majority of the world’s population deal with some form of trauma, you also don’t have to have experienced the actual traumatizing experience to be traumatized yourself.
The title What Happened to You is a good start in an effort to explain where this book is about. In an ongoing conversation Oprah Winfrey asks psychiatrist Dr. Perryquestions to explore the subject in order to dive deep into it. Several personal stories and examples from the work field of Dr. Perry alternate and are then placed in a larger scientific context. It’s a great mix between tapping into stories that are recognizable but then also get explanations for why things happen and why people act and feel the way they do after trauma. I couldn’t get enough by the examples Dr. Perry uses from his work experience.
After reading the book I realized how so many things in life are connected and that everyone is on their own path of healing and growing. In the introduction of the book Oprah Winfrey writes: “Through this lens we can build a renewed sense of personal self-worth and ultimately recalibrate our responses to circumstances, situations, and relationships. It is, in other words, the key to reshaping our very lives.” By shifting the conversation from, what’s wrong with that person to: what happened to them? The reader is reminded time after time again that empathy is key. It’s just not justified to judge ourselves and others harshly. We are not able to grow from that behavior.
One of the things I find highly interesting is how our brains don’t seem to recognize time difference when it comes to trauma. Our brain has different layers and once triggered, many parts of the brain shut off – the brain goes into default mode. When a person goes into this default mode, they are basically only able to experience basic senses like touch, smell and sound. During increased stress-levels, the areas of logical thinking and rationality are shut off temporarily.
Then, when a person is triggered by something in his later life, there will be no difference in his emotional response. The person will re-live the initial traumatic moment, even if the trauma actually happened years ago.
There is a multitude of “labels” that refer back to what happened to us earlier in life. While to outsiders the triggers can look like an overreaction, the body and the brain respond completely normal. Such labels range from being an over achiever, to a people-pleaser or even someone that arguments about everything. If we focus on those little snippets, we will ignore important elements of the person’s past that might lead them to the way they are acting now. While we often ask ourselves what’s “wrong” with us or the people we look at, we do better by asking ourselves what happened to us or what happened to the person who’s lives we haven’t lived.
When we talk about trauma, we might think about horrific experiences related to sexual assault or child abuse first. Although we can’t compare pain with pain – as it’s both pain and horrible, traumatic experiences might happen more often, in other more subtle ways too.
For example, every child needs to feel heard. The child needs a caregiver that is devoting their time and emotional availability by being an effective listener. When a child wants to tell a story about boys at school, or a painting she has made in class, and the caregiver starts to look at his or her phone, it will condition the child. It can leave the impression that the child is not heard. That the phone might be more important than her voice.
That’s how we move into the world as an adult. We develop a certain worldview based on our passed experiences. In other words, we tend to see the world not as it is, but as how we think it is. That is key here. The child could go into the world and everytime the person in front of her stretches its neck or coincidentally looks away, the adult kid is affirmed in its worldview: See, my story doesn’t matter. I don’t matter. In many ways, trauma all comes down to how you were loved. Neglect and trauma are hand and hand because both are equally toxic.
Body, mind, soul
As you can imagine, trauma influences many areas of life. Trauma does not only influence later life and later relationships, but also its body and mind. I didn’t know the scale of which this impact is visible. Trauma influences our stress responses and people who go through many triggers have higher stress neurons in their blood. In other words, they have higher changes to get diabetes or depressions.
All of these areas are interconnected and it might be meaningful to see where these triggers stem from. We all might be hurt or wounded in life by people or things. Sometimes we don’t even know it: we look at the symptoms and ask ourselves, I’m an adult am I just not able to sleep alone at night – what’s wrong with me?
But there is hope for those suffering from trauma. By diving into ourselves, our life experiences, the people we met and the paths we have crossed, we can discover the roots of our pain. And if we are willing to do so, its an investment in ourselves that lasts a lifetime. By gathering – so called – traumatic wisdom, we collect the fundamental information we need to shift the perspective from what’s wrong with us, to what happened to us. The path of ignorance is long but spreading light on the things we decide not to look at, can help us better understand our needs. In other Words, there is hope. Our brains change and adapt all the time. They are incredibly flexible and as Dr. Perry shows – relationships, communities and the feeling of connectedness will help us heal from the most painful experiences in life.
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