Updated: Mar 2, 2021
Cynthia Degnan, PhD, MSW, LCSW
Intake and Trauma Therapist
In my role as a trauma therapist, I am often working from theoretical concepts that are simpler on paper than in practice, but provide useful guidelines nonetheless. One of those is the way that trauma can disrupt our brain and body’s experience of time. Usually when we remember past events, we have a narrative of the event’s components that follows the order in which they occurred; we call this narrative explicit memory. And usually we can also access the emotions and physical sensations that accompany that memory; these feelings are called implicit memory. For a non-traumatic memory, we can sense and sometimes even feel all those things, but we stay anchored in the present and the memories stay anchored in the past.
Trauma memory works differently. The part of the brain that is activated in a traumatic event (the hippocampus, which floods the body with hormones to facilitate a flight, flight, or freeze response) is also the part that manages memory. The memory function essentially shuts down in order to manage the immediate moment as efficiently as possible. This is why narrative memory of trauma can be fragmented or out of order. It also means that implicit memory — the emotions and sensations that accompany the trauma — can get stored in our bodies detached from explicit memory of the events that created them.
When this happens, it disrupts our ability to access memories as past events while ourselves staying rooted in the present. This is often what is meant by the word “triggered” in trauma-informed spaces. Being triggered does not just mean feeling uncomfortable or challenged. It means that the brain and body are experiencing sensations and emotions that are based in the past, but really feel like they are happening in the present. Flashbacks or nightmares are one clear example of this. People who experience flashbacks and nightmares often describe the profound discomfort of feeling like they are re-experiencing the trauma in their present life. Another example is hypervigilance, which can manifest as someone needing to repeatedly check for safety even after that safety has been established.
Out-of-time implicit memories can be more subtle, however. For example, a person who was emotionally or physically abandoned as a child might respond as if that abandonment is happening all over again when someone in their adult life sets reasonable boundaries. This is not uncommon nor is it a cause for shame. In this scenario, those feelings are valid and real, and also, they are misplaced in time. As a trauma therapist, one of my goals is to look for ways to give the traumatized parts emerging in the present the care and concern they did not get when the trauma actually happened. One reason for this kind of support is to help those traumatized parts feel the difference between the past and present and better understand whether they need those same reactions now.
But what happens when the trauma isn’t over? Or one form of trauma has passed but others continue? In some ways we are experiencing a massive, collective trauma as a pandemic sweeps through the world. But for many, collective traumas are not a new experience. BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ folks, and people with disabilities live in a society that consistently marginalizes and harms them. Macroaggressions such as police brutality are easy to identify as traumatic, but microaggressions — the more subtle reminders of difference and marginalization that can happen on a daily basis — can also create trauma and reinforce triggers to past traumas. No matter how our brain may logically understand these experiences, the feeling parts of us, our emotions and our bodies, might not separate or rationalize them. Trauma triggers trauma, and the trauma of living with experiences of oppression can get tangled with experiences that are more commonly recognized as trauma, like abuse or neglect. In many cases trauma is not actually in the past, making the concept of “healing” trauma much more complicated than that word typically indicates.
When I first started working as a trauma therapist, the models for trauma therapy that I encountered suggested a neat, linear progression toward healing accomplished through individually processing experiences. But my own queer identity, experiences, and traumas and the way I’ve felt in community with other queer and queer-affirming people prodded me and left me feeling unsettled. This model is largely based on single-incident or discrete traumas. Many of the foundational texts of trauma therapy are written by white people and do not account for the impact of marginalization and oppression on a trauma survivor’s experience. Turning to the work and examples of BIPOC authors and creators gives us a different model. Here are a few places to start.
Trauma therapist Resmaa Menakem’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, integrates lived experiences and social justice frameworks into trauma processing. Menakem tracks the way that racialized trauma pervades US culture and gets stored in our bodies. He coins the term “white-body supremacy” to name the ways this trauma inhabits all of our bodies, but manifests differently according to racialized power dynamics. He recognizes trauma passed down through generations both as past experiences emerging in the present and as something that fuels new traumas. But unlike many models of trauma therapy, he does not propose that trauma must be over before the work can begin. In fact, he argues that it is crucial to work through trauma while in the midst of structural oppression in order to achieve racial justice. He instructs readers in being able to identify the sources and qualities of their pain and ways to respond to it through deepening the mind-body connection. By strengthening that connection, we can learn to experience moments of joy and presence when they happen and respond to trauma in a way that serves us and our communities. He beautifully traces the ways that Black culture has done this for centuries through communal practices that engage the body such as singing, dancing, and call-and-response, and he suggests ways to build on these practices. He taps into the wisdom of marginalized communities in instinctively moving toward healing in the non-linear sense: building access to joy, community, and centeredness in the pockets of time and space where it is possible to do so in an otherwise traumatic world.
I see one example of the practices that Menakem envisions in a project called The Nap Ministry, founded by Tricia Hersey. Hersey names the way our cultural understandings of productivity and value are tied to US capitalism and rooted in white supremacy, a connection that can be traced back to slavery. Hersey promotes the use of naps and other forms of intentional rest to disrupt these systems and as essential tools to heal trauma in the body and move toward liberation. Importantly she creates spaces for participants to experience these forms of rest collectively. Another example that comes to mind is ball culture, recently brought into broad cultural awareness through the (gorgeous and ground-breaking, imho) FX series, Pose. Ball culture continues today, but this series is set in the late 80s and early 90s. In it we see Black and Latinx queer and trans people creating a culture of mutual care, built partially around music, dance, and dress as well as intentional forms of family. These connections and celebrations take place amid both the HIV/AIDS epidemic and rampant homo- and trans-phobia that make survival a daily struggle.
These examples center the body as a tool of liberation, which is crucial because of the way that trauma is stored in the body. But importantly all of these examples are also about community. Healing trauma is often framed as individual work, but especially when that work is being done in the context of structural oppression and marginalization, community and collective work also can be an important piece of healing. While we might not be able to wait for the trauma to be over when that trauma is baked into the fabric of our society, community and other forms of mutual care can create safer spaces that allow the brain and the body to do healing work. And trauma therapy can help facilitate these connections. By doing the individual pieces of the work with a knowledgeable and compassionate trauma therapist, we can make more space for vulnerability, connection, and presence in the communities that help us thrive.