When Trauma Happens

By Catherine Lowrey - 07/16/2019


In the movie Karate Kid we fondly recall the “Kid” seeking karate lessons from Mr. Miyagi, who has the Kid doing a number of house chores until he’s thoroughly annoyed and announces, “I learned plenty!? I learned how to sand your decks, wax your car, paint your house, paint your fence. I learned plenty!” Finally, Mr. Miyagi begins waving his fists and knees at the Kid, who has quickly learned to defend himself. His hands make the “wax on” motion and deflect a hit, “wax off” and deflects another. It appears the Kid’s body and muscles have secretly learned the practice of karate. I’m no sensei, but my work with trauma has me believing this method would actually work.

Trauma creates the same paradigm- secretly teaching us how to respond to future events. In times of trauma our brain and body learn instantaneously. Our brain is set up in such a way during this “fight, flight, freeze” state that we assimilate information we aren’t even consciously aware of. This information is meant to protect us in the moment; however, it often leads to learnings that aren’t always adaptive in our day to day lives. While people often feel the fear of their initial trauma dissipate with time, they can experience other events later in life where they curiously find themselves having strong reactions. We often find that what was once learned during trauma is creating barriers to living life in the present, and we work to redefine and reintegrate this information. When addressing trauma, my clients and I work to make conscious what unconscious messages they learned. Such messages can be around responsibility (ex. It’s my fault), safety (ex. I’m not safe), choice (ex. I’m powerless), or value (ex. I’m not good enough). If something once happened to us where we unconsciously learned, “I’m powerless,” for example, we may later find ourselves giving up control in areas in which we come to realize the outcome is not predetermined, and we can make different choices.

There are a number of ways to heal from trauma. In line with Mr. Miyagi again, we’ve often learned a number of ways in life to keep ourselves safe and empowered. In therapy we draw upon these resources as well, applying what we’ve secretly learned at other points in life towards taking better care of self in the present.

Article by Catherine Lowry, Psy.d

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