It is easy to attach survival based fear or anxiety to those people who have suffered recognizable physical, emotional or mental traumas in their lives: being beaten by the parent, experiencing unwarranted parental control, sexual abuse, or the extreme absence of an aspect of parental care. Given these conditions, it would be expected that a child will feel uncertain about her environment and unsafe. However, having worked, as a therapist with hundreds of therapeutic cases, I hold the opinion that we all carry differing levels of survival-anxiety, because each and every one of us has experienced an encounter with trauma.
Survival-anxiety occurs should a child sense the absence, or the threatened absence of caregiver presence, food and environmental consistency. This “sense” has wide criteria: from something chronically abusive, lacking or damaging to the child within the family structure, to a situation which may seem, to someone who has suffered the damaging effect of abuse, sublime in comparison. Sublime trauma would be the mother who has a habit of not coming back home from shopping in time for the child arriving home from school and forgetting to inform the child. If you have suffered chronic childhood physical or emotional abuse you may be challenged to see this as neglect. However, a mother failing to tell her child that she may not be home on time will fall outside of the child’s needs and expectations, especially if she leaves him in the morning saying, “I’ll see you when you get home from school.” If he continues to come home to an empty house, having not been informed that the house is going to be empty, carrying the expectation that his mother will be home, this environmental inconsistency will become the child’s trauma.
All of us are exposed to situations and circumstances that fall outside of our expectations each and everyday. If you receive unexpected news of a friend at work who has been laid off from a job thought to be secure until the time she retired, this would fall outside of your expectations. You may be totally shocked to hear such news. You relay the news to your husband, who in turn expresses his shock upon hearing it also. It’s on your mind for the rest of the day and into the evening. Later, you talk to your friend and try to console her. That night your sleep is disturbed, but although you feel tired the next morning, you are able, for the most part, to put it out of your mind and you end up having a pretty regular, but good day at work, then later, a pleasant evening at home with your husband. You phone your friend again just to check in and see how she is doing, but then you are able to re-join your husband and re-assume the closeness you had with him before receiving the news about your friend. This is not trauma. Hearing your friend’s news does not qualify as trauma, despite the fact that it fell outside of your expectations, because you recovered from the unexpected.
We are faced with change on my different fronts each day of our lives. Your son coming home from school having been in a fight with one of the students might need a word with the school authorities to clarify how such an incident slipped by their notice for you to recover. Your beloved pet dog disappearing will likely entail a thorough search of the town you live in to assist your recovery. Knowing you did your very best to find him would become your consolation in coping with and recovering from your unexpected loss. Or hearing on the news, as we do so much these days, of yet another soldier being ambushed and killed by terrorists, only this time the dead soldier happens to have grown up in the same housing estate as the one you live in. Attending the memorial service, talking to compassionate friends, seeing a professional counselor may all have to take place for you to recover from this unexpected and unwanted event. As long as you are able to recover from the event that has fallen outside of your expectations, it is not trauma.
Trauma is when something occurs that is outside of our expectations and we do not recover. When we don’t recover, we re-organize our lives around the pretext that the trauma, or similar trauma might occur again. When we don’t recover and re-organize our lives, or a portion of our lives, to prevent the event from re-occurring, then the event was a trauma.
Questions for Contemplation:
What events in your life past or present that were unexpected do you feel you have not yet recovered from?
What significant unexpected events have you recovered from?
What did you do to aid the recovery process?
If you have not recovered from certain events do they in some way exert influence in how you conduct yourself or your life? If so, how does that influence show up in your day-to-day life?