Trauma* is a therapeutic chapter of its own. There’s talk of emotional trauma, and psychological trauma, and of course physical trauma. Instincts, though, are rarely discussed — likely because we don’t tend to be aware of them as everyday companions. But maybe we ought to be.
Trauma can be radical, dramatic and life-changing. But there are also smaller, sometimes but not always repeated events that are equally traumatic, even though it does not show on the outside. And then, we have big, overwhelming experiences that are just that, but that we still wouldn’t label traumatic.
What makes an experience traumatic?
So what it it that makes an experience traumatic? I’ve seen trauma defined as anything from ”a deeply distressing or disturbing experience” to something that’s just “too much, too soon or too fast”. And I agree with these definitions, but I think there is one component which is always present in the things we refer to as truly traumatic: a primal, instinctual aspect. Emotions alone, thoughts or knowledge alone, isn’t traumatic; trauma is, by its very nature, instinctual.
Two things about the instincts are extra important here: firstly, they are about survival; secondly, they are automatic. We can’t talk ourselves out of a trauma reaction. And we can’t emote our way out of it, either. It’s not that things like grieving and understanding aren’t important — but the actual trauma lives in the instinctual realm, in the (often erroneous but nevertheless extremely convincing) sense that the world as we know it has collapsed around us, which sends us into an instinctual panic. So, it’s not only the head and heart we need to take into account here. It’s also any primal, instinctual fears — unreasonable a they might seem to the mind — triggered by the event.
“It wasn’t the grief, it was the absolute terror”
Someone told me about their (unwanted) divorce: “When he told me he wanted a divorce, of course I was distraught and sad. My hopes for us as a family, for my kids growing up with mum and dad together, was wiped out. I was angry, and I was crushed. The grief was palpable. And bit by bit, I processed those reactions. The discomfort subsided, but did not all together vanish. It wasn’t until much later that I realised that, at the time, I was also absolutely terrified. The hardest hit wasn’t to the heart, but to the gut, where the instinctual interpretation was that you will not make it on your own. It threw me into total shock. The deep, instinctual reaction in my system, even though I wasn’t conscious of it — nor did I believe it — was: I might not survive this.”
It wasn’t until this person realised the trauma on the instinctual level that she could heal properly. Yes, she needed to grieve. Yes, she needed to understand. But she also needed to just hear and hold the terrified inner three-year-old that was convinced this was the end. With instinctual reactions that aren’t relevant in the moment (which we can understand with the help of our intellectual intelligence), it’s not so much that we need to do something with them. Yes, sometimes they amass quite a bit of kinaesthetic energy that we might want to discharge physically, like when animals outrun a threat or just stand shaking for a bit to rid the system of excess adrenaline. But mostly, we just need to consciously allow them; acknowledge them and be with them for a while.
Trauma therapists know this
Of course, people working with trauma know this already. While they might not have pondered things like centres or instinctual drives, there is usually a profound awareness of the sensitivity and “waiting for a wild animal showing confidence in you” treading that is called for in such work. An intuitive (or instinctual, actually!) knowledge, regardless of how we choose to phrase it.
But as for more minor-but-still traumatic experiences — the betrayals, let-downs, losses and aggravations of everyday life; things we might regard as “silly” to get upset over, at least for any length of time? Well, sometimes, they are mostly an annoyance. They’re a bump in the road, something that might have us upset for a bit but which blows over relatively quickly. But other times, they linger. Perhaps to our own embarrassment, it’s hard to “get over it already” and move on. Maybe we do intellectually realise that it won’t kill us, that they didn’t mean it. Maybe we even learn that what we thought happened didn’t, in fact, happen — it was just that an unfortunate chain of events made it look that way. But still, the discomfort doesn’t really let go.
Looking for the “instinctual take”
In these situations, we might want to take a step back. We might want to review the instinctual drives, look closer at what they entail, and ask ourselves what kind of instinctual response might seem reasonable. From an automated, animalistic point of view, what might the instincts have to say about this? Not that the impulse was necessarily actually relevant — chances are, it wasn’t. Because no, it’s unlikely we will die just because our partner leaves us. It’s equally unlikely that we’ll be ostracized, driven out in the desert and starve from being plotted against at work . But to our gut, and our primal instincts, especially if we’re a bit reactive in that department from having had similar experiences before, that might be what it initially feels like. Loss and social exclusion can trigger strong reactions in the adaptation instinct, because as evolving animals, we’re in for a tough ride indeed without our tribe. Today, we can find other groups to belong to. We might even have them already — groups that we feel infinitely more at home in than the one in the workplace. But back in our biological inheritance, being excluded from important groups mean your life was at risk. And that is what our instinctual reaction is stemming from.
Awareness, allowing and acknowledgement
If we can be aware of these things, allow them and acknowledge them for what they are, they might pass pretty quickly. But if not, we might be like the woman going through the divorce, processing away at thoughts, emotions and even instinctual anger but without touching upon the sensitivities of the instinctual fear. Meeting the fear, it diminished greatly (as it’s rarely connected to actual threat to our life). But denying it, it can keep festering and causing problems in the dark.
Curious about exploring the instincts? For a limited time, a webinar on understanding the instincts is available on the Exploring the Enneagram facebook page. And, of course, there’s the online course starting on February 8:th — welcome!
*) A note on the word trauma: As used in this article, it refers loosely to anything too overwhelming for the system to handle. While this body of knowledge is just as relevant regardless of what level trauma we’re talking about, if you do have significant, severe trauma, please contact a professional to help deal with it if you haven’t done so already.