Book Excerpt

Below is a section discussing trauma from a holistic perspective, from the first chapter of The PTSD Healing Process by David Redbord, MA, MPH.


Trauma is anything that we encounter that is beyond the capacity of our mind-body system to effectively process. Trauma can be looked at through three lenses; the biological, emotional, and energetic. If our mind-body system could process it effectively, it wouldn’t get stuck, and we wouldn’t have trauma.

Trauma in the Brain (Biological Perspective)

Figure 2: Trauma in the Brain
Figure 2

Let’s look at trauma from a brain perspective (Figure 2). Earlier, we talked about some examples of possible traumatic events. Anything that is happening in our environment, whether it’s a car accident or an earthquake or just eating lunch, is data taken in by our brain through the senses. This data arrives at a part of the brain called the thalamus (Van der Kolk, 2014). Anything we’re seeing, hearing, touching, or tasting is taken in through the thalamus where it’s filtered to another part of the brain called the amygdala. 

The amygdala is the emotional processing center of the brain, it looks at this incoming data and labels it accordingly (Van der Kolk, 2014). If it looks like a sad thing that happened, the amygdala puts a sad stamp on it.  If it’s an event that feels mostly like anger, the amygdala puts an angry stamp on it.  After that, the brain puts it in the hippocampus, which is the memory storage center of your brain. There, it can be stored and retrieved as needed.

A similar process happens with trauma. The brains of people who experience trauma are also taking in the same sensory information through the thalamus. Afterward, it goes to the amygdala. The amygdala then looks at the information and encodes it with the appropriate emotional label; angry, sad, fear, shame, guilt, doubt, whatever the feelings are. As a result of the perceived intensity of the emotion contained in the memory, the memory/information doesn’t move into long-term storage. It hangs out in this part of the brain where it remains unprocessed. Since it’s unprocessed, it’s very easy for it to get retriggered. If another experience that comes into your awareness gets processed by the thalamus and arrives at the amygdala, and reminds us of this event that’s unprocessed, it leads to a trigger happening. A trigger is a disproportionate emotional reaction to whatever the current situation is. Meaning if the situation seems to warrant a two out of ten for anger, but you’re at a ten out of ten, you’ve probably been triggered. In other words, the size of the reaction is huge compared to what is actually justified by the situation.

That’s why certain sights, sounds, and smells can retrigger us. They’re getting filtered in through the thalamus, stamped and labeled in the amygdala and touching on the unprocessed stuff that’s hanging around that area.

Trauma in the Physical Body

Trauma and stress can also be stored in the physical body. That’s why sometimes people have physical symptoms like tremors, shaking, pain, and nausea (Van der Kolk, 2014). These can actually be results of trauma in the body.

Trauma and the Emotions

Figure 3

Trauma is when the emotional charge we experience from an event exceeds our threshold to tolerate it (Ogden, 2006). I find the image of an overflowing cup helpful for this concept (Figure 3). If the cup could contain all the water being poured in, it wouldn’t overflow. If our system could handle the emotional charge, it wouldn’t result in trauma. You can see that this cup is not able to contain the quantity of water that’s coming in. In very much the same way, when our system is unable to deal with the intensity of an emotional charge, it lands in the system as trauma. If that emotional charge doesn’t exceed our ability to tolerate it, it doesn’t become trauma. Without that quality of exceeding our threshold, we’re left with just an event. Without this substantial emotional charge, we just have an event. Without this overflow, we just have a cup with water in it.

Going Deeper with Emotions

Let’s go deeper for a moment and look at why some folks have nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and triggers. It’s because there’s an unprocessed emotional charge stuck in the system. With all three of these issues, your subconscious mind is trying to find resolution about what happened. It wants to deal with the water that’s overflowing from the cup. It’s bringing these things to your attention through nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and retriggering. You can think about this as a call for help (Riedl, 2006). It’s as if your subconscious mind is raising its hand and asking you for your attention. There’s something that needs your attention here, and this is how your system is pointing it out to you.

Trauma in the Energy Body

Figure 4

We have a meridian system that flows through our body (Figure 4). Energy is constantly moving through this system. All disease from this perspective is caused by a block in the flow of energy through this system. It doesn’t matter whether that disease is physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. There’s some obstruction in the system. Just like before where we saw that stuff is stuck hanging out by the amygdala, it’s very much the same thing here. The energy that would normally flow through the system freely gets stuck (Gallo, 2004). The energy is no longer flowing properly, causing us to be retriggered and potentially leading to physical health effects.

©2019 David Redbord, MA, MPH