The Effect of Little Bits of Trauma on our Bodies

The word ‘trauma’ comes to us usually with extreme connotations of harrowing events like war or tragedy producing painful and distressing physical and mental injuries. But in everyday life, trauma manifests in much more subtle ways as a matter of us adapting to our environment to survive everyday threats – mini threats, like spilling milk kind-of-problems. The skills that lodge within us for managing these stresses are passed down from our families, both in our conditioning as we grow up as well as an inherited programming that comes from our generational predecessors.

In the wild, surviving trauma is more obvious as animals respond to threats constantly. They are required to find food, generate their own warmth, find shade and shelter, protect themselves from physical danger, and maintain their reproductivity. In addition, mammals have social needs that extend to social interaction within herds, and the safety mechanism of belonging to a group. Mammals also have the added task of caring for their young. Interruptions to these measures cause animals trauma. What happens in the wild is vastly different to our lives. Both in the intensity of trauma and the responses of the animals to move past it. Human comfort seeking may have ruined our ability to process trauma adequately. Whereas animals release their stress with bodily responses, humans tend to override it – in an effort to not feel discomfort – with adaptations, unintentionally leaving stress trapped in the body.

There are two types of overall trauma. The first type is a single event that is significant and triggering to our sense of any of the above measures. For example, a car accident or an assault (physical danger), flood or fire (food and shelter and perhaps physical danger), death of a loved one (social support). This type of trauma can produce PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder).

The second type is an ongoing manifestation of stress that produces anxiety and effects that are similar to the single event, but the symptoms develop over time. As we try to adjust to the stress, we adapt in the best way that we know how to provide relief. This often results in an unconscious use of our bodies, a pattern of behaviour that helps us overcome the stress in the moment. However, our responses maybe unhelpful in the long term causing us to stay stuck in situations and cycles of thinking that we cannot seem to get away from. This is termed C-PTSD or complex posttraumatic stress disorder. The complexity is really due to the fact that there is no single event, and that the triggering effects are often hard to pinpoint.

Most people have experienced these two types of traumas. Life is just too hard to live without encountering either of them. Related to riding horses, I have had a bad fall which was an event type of trauma. I didn’t have the side effects of PTSD from that fortunately, but my memory of it is as clear as daylight despite that it happened over 30 years ago. I’ve been in a few car accidents that involved crashing, a scary situation with the military in Colombia, a physical mugging in a dark street in Madrid, and a few other events that I would consider traumatic. I recovered from these fairly quickly when the danger disappeared. We have the benefit of knowing in these cases, what might be triggering us. But in the case of prolonged stress, our bodies usually tells us that something is wrong before we figure it out mentally. Strange aches and pains or gastric symptoms appear from the constriction and contraction that we operate with as an adaptation to stress.

We can develop habits of movement, such as biting nails, folding in on ourselves, tapping feet, crossing our legs or arms, holding our shoulders up, twitching, rolling the eyes, talking incessantly, clamming up, breathing shallow, and the list goes on. Once we have these bodily patterns, they repeat automatically under triggering situations, and perhaps even constantly.

I found myself with plenty of these habits and I am thankful to riding, or to be more exact, my horse partners, for exposing them. If I didn’t need to be in balance and moving in harmony with a living animal, then I may never have discovered any of this. The resistance that I had stored in my body was preventing my ability to sense and activate areas of my body, and to convey relaxation to my horse.

Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.

 Maya Angelou

Horses, with their finely tuned senses pick up our body signals easily. We can’t hide it from them by pretending. In fact that would produce confusion for them as they expect congruency in what your body says and your actions. The more that we work on seeing what they see and sense, the more that we will learn about ourselves. You can’t fix something that you are not aware of. Awareness is really the first step and it takes courage to expose something in yourself that you have been hiding – even to yourself. The body doesn’t lie. We need to tap into what it is telling us. To do this, we need to slow ourselves down to the point where we can be still, stop the distractions of racing into thought. Listen to the world around us, observe and sense our environment. Be a wild animal for a minute. Get in touch with your deep instincts. This is where awareness begins.