Can I have trauma if nothing really bad happened to me?
Yes. The formation of trauma and CPTSD is not really about the event itself, it’s about how prepared our individual nervous system was to deal with it – how much panic and overwhelm it caused, and how many resources we had internally and externally to help address that panic. And that is a function of a lot of things, including how sensitive your individual nervous system is, and how good your parents were at helping you through it, and how securely you were attached to them and thus able to go to them for that help. And how young you were, how frightened you were by whatever the thing is. The same event will affect differently people differently based on those factors, so just looking at the event doesn’t tell you how bad it was for you.
We also don’t always remember trauma. Trauma is stored in our nervous system, so it’s not always connected to something in our memory banks. I would classify most insecure attachment as “unremembered trauma”, because it mostly is in place before age 2, before we have episodic memory. That’s why it’s so unconscious to us until we work on it. It just feels like “how we are” and “how the world is”.
CPTSD is different from single-episode trauma in that it is caused by chronic unresolved overwhelming stress over time. Any overwhelming event can get lodged in our nervous system and cause a specific trigger around anything that reminds us of that event, until it’s processed. But CPTSD is “complex” because it involves trauma layered on top of trauma. And when it happens in childhood, it is also affects how we grow and develop, and it deeply affects how we see the world and ourselves.
So, if you can’t look at the severity of the event, what do you look at? You look to see if you have symptoms. Namely, do you chronically go into one or more of the 4Fs – fight/flight/fawn/freeze modes.
- Fight – are you constantly mobilized to do battle, work hard, over-exert, over-assert, are you amped up, can’t calm down, have trouble sleeping, explosive outbursts, aggression.
- Flight – get lost in distractions, fantasize, run away, overwork, can’t sit still, micro-manage, “in your head” a lot, anxiety.
- Fawn – people pleasing, ignoring your own needs in favor of others, accommodating, flattering, over-giving, codependent.
- Freeze – dissociating, unable to do the things you need to do, spacing out, self-isolation, procrastination that makes no sense logically, feeling inexplicably helpless, lethargic, brain fog, depression.
Trauma is still an emerging field and I think a lot of what we think of as traditional disorders like borderline may be classified as CPTSD at some point.
In a training I took once, the teacher explained that a baby with a sensitive nervous system could develop trauma by living too close to the subway tracks, and their nervous system getting jangled over and over again, such that they internalized a view that the world was just overwhelming. It can also happen with a chronic colic, where the baby is just in distress al the time. These things have nothing to do with parental abuse or anything obviously “wrong”. Another common issue is post-partum depression, where the mom just can’t be there for the child through no fault of their own. I bring up these examples to emphasize that it’s not the thing that happened, it’s how young we were when it happened, and the interaction between the thing and your own nervous system. Sometimes trauma is the result of seriously messed up stuff, that is obviously wrong, but trauma can also happen even if nothing is obviously wrong.
Human babies are far more helpless than most animal babies. I grew up on a farm, and baby cows are up and walking around in a few hours. Humans are basically born under-developed in key ways because our brains are so big we couldn’t fit through the birth canal if we grew in the womb anymore. But this makes us especially susceptible to very early childhood trauma, which we then have no recollection of.
One traumatic incident for me growing up was when we had to separate the calfs from their mom. You have to do it, because we have bred cows to produce so much milk that the calves will overeat and get sick (well, that’s what I was told…I don’t know actually if that’s true now that I think of it). But as a little girl I would watch the mom cow endlessly moo-ing for her baby and obviously distressed, and the calf be locked up away from her and calling for her, and it was horrible, just ripped me apart. I know now that it was activating all of my own mommy-trauma. On the surface, that isn’t a “traumatic event”, as I was not injured or hurt in any way, but on an emotional level, it is seared into my memory banks. Just thinking about it brings up all this pain and longing and distress, because it’s the exact same feeling I probably had about my own mom not really being there for me as a baby.
I share this story to point out the primal nature of all of this stuff. It’s our “animal self” that gets traumatized, not our logical self. And one of the reasons I have so much trauma is that I was only ever offered logical explanations for my distress (like the “we have to do it this way” reasons I shared above), and not tended to on an emotional level. Children are very resilient to events when they have emotional nurturance, it cushions their nervous system and helps them regulate and process things. But without that, they can’t really cope on their own. Which is why emotional neglect is one of the most under-recognized causes of CPTSD.