Being able to identify trauma is useful in two situations:
- When someone around you starts acting like a banana
- When you start acting like a banana
When something happens that reminds us strongly of a previous event, it often feels as if that earlier, awful thing is occurring all over again. Thus, we react to the feeling of the original trauma, not what’s currently happening.
Part of this comes down to how our brains work. Our brains react near as dammit identically regardless of whether we’re actively experiencing something, or merely remembering it.
This is why talk therapy can actually exacerbate PTSD (here’s the actual research) – talking about something forces the patient to relive the event (at a brain level, even though not physically), thus putting them through it all over again.
The real trick is – if you’re in a situation where someone is being a banana and you can tell it’s just a trauma reaction, it’s a lot easier to stay calm and loving. Thus, voila, life gets better (and easier!)
Being able to stay in a calm, loving space is an incredible gift to give someone you care about, particularly if they’re suffering at the time (as they would be).
So, what are the key identifiers?
(I’ll explain as if it’s always the other person – but the same things apply when we’re ‘watching ourselves’ in any given situation)
Something seemingly minor happens and the person massively over-reacts? This is always a good warning sign.
Now, it is possible they just ate some bad clams, are stressed about work, are tired, hungover, or whatever. Typically though, you can adjust your baseline understanding of their ‘current behaviour’.
If they’re already grumpy as hell, it’s quite possible the over reaction is nothing – or just a continuation of their already-shitty-day.
However, if they’re basically calm, then suddenly go nuts? Ahh, it’s most likely nothing to do with you or what’s just happened; they’re reliving a previous trauma.
If someone gets upset, then starts accusing you of a, b or c… and those things leave you scratching your head and wondering, “What the hell are they talking about?”, that’s a very good sign they’re really not talking about you at all.
They may be accusing you of things you’ve never done, or putting a spin on the current situation which makes no obvious sense at all.
Also common are phrases like “You always…” or “You never…” when it’s maybe the first time you’ve done something. In other words, using unexpected absolutes.
If it genuinely sounds like they’re talking about someone else? They probably are. That’s the original trauma coming to the surface again.
This is similar to being accused of something that doesn’t make sense.
Sometimes you can see patterns in the way someone reacts to similar situations. For example, they may say an identical or very similar phrase. They may also get angry and go on the offensive (fight) or shut down and leave (flight).
Recurring behavioural or speech patterns are a very strong indicator that what’s actually happening is a reaction to earlier trauma.
Now of course, refusing to be dragged into a shit-storm is actually a mature response. However, the key difference is how intensely the person is reacting.
Having calm energy and acting from a loving place is ideal. Tense or intense reactions, even if externally seemingly identical, are often indicative of something deeper.
Obviously, all these things are visible in ourselves too. The key is to just pay gentle attention and note when it feels like maybe we’re overreacting, being irrational, or repeating ourselves.
The more we do this, the more fine-tuned our awareness will become. It will also help us when paying attention to others.
Once we notice that what we’re experiencing is merely the echo of an earlier trauma, we have a choice.
- We can chill out, let it go past, and not react to it (ie, loving but neutral)
- We can heal it (awesome!)
- We can behave as usual, and run around with our hair on fire (less awesome!)
The key thing to remember is this: if an earlier trauma is provoking the reaction, then dealing with the current situation will have relatively little effect. It may calm things slightly, but the real root cause is elsewhere, not what’s right in front of you.
So, for example, trying to rationalise the current situation will be more or less a complete waste of time.
Trying to calm the person down by resolving the immediate problem will only offer a temporary salve – the trauma will come back again (because it hasn’t been dealt with). When it does, you’ll have the same over-reaction, accusations and patterns to deal with.
The good news is this gives us plenty of chances to truly, deeply and completely heal any trauma. In fact, exactly as many chances as we need.
And thus, day-by-day, we grow.