Why Trauma is Such a Big Deal

by Fernando Perfas

| Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

As I delve deeper into my study of trauma, I come to realize that it is so pervasive. It comes in different forms, and no one is insulated from it. A large-scale form is a colonial or historical trauma, such as the Holocaust or the European colonial conquest. Some are the results of calamities or tragic accidents. Others are perpetrated by people or a group of people, or even governments. The worst kinds are those committed by the very people charged with protecting the victims. Often, the trauma happens recurrently, as in incest, sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, domestic violence, neglect, and abandonment. In a less dramatic form, but with equally devastating consequences, trauma can come about from a life filled with chronic sources of stress, such as living in high conflict areas or war zones, limited food and clean water supply, chronic unemployment, family break-up, death of a household provider, family alcoholism or drug abuse, terminal illness, etc.

The effects of trauma are pernicious, long-lasting, and affect the sufferer’s quality of life. Trauma literally alters brain structures and functions, and the changes can be significant depending on the nature and severity of the trauma. It shapes the way a victim views the world and himself and how he relates with people and forms relationships. It dictates his sense of equanimity, perceiving threats and mobilizing his body when there is actually no real danger.

Painful life experiences are ubiquitous, and their memories are often deeply burned in our brains so that they color our perception and shape our response to threats, real or imaginary. Trauma and adverse life experiences have such a hold on our body and mind that we re-experience or reenact them whenever the trauma’s implicit or explicit memories are triggered by current events. We unconsciously and impulsively deploy learned responses or adaptations, which are our attempts to cope. However, those responses are often inadequate or inappropriate to the new situation.

Traumatic events that leave the victim in anguish or a state of unpleasant disequilibrium can lead to abuse of mind-altering substances, such as alcohol, drugs, food, or over-indulgence to self-induced “high” from sex, gambling, or dangerous behavior. These are coping strategies to ease pain or alleviate stress caused by traumatic memories. When the body has been exposed to prolonged or chronic stressful situations, the brain and bodily organs are constantly awash with cocktails of brain chemicals and hormones that the body mobilizes to cope with stress which in turn become toxic to the body. The cumulative effects are later expressed in the form of diseases like heart conditions, lung problems, cancer, diabetes, digestive disorder, hypertension, and many other health issues.

“We were blessed with parents who loved and sacrificed to feed, clothe and send their children to school. Our relationships with our parents were forged in fire, borne out of common hardship, and nurtured by a lifelong attachment. These relationships weathered many challenges, and the bond remained strong even in old age. It is the common thread of our life story and the secret of our success.”

The widespread effects of trauma do not only affect our physical body or our state of mind. They cascade into our interpersonal life, in how we form and manage relationships, including our ability for intimacy. While some forms of trauma may arise from a betrayal of a relationship, such as a parent abandoning or abusing a child, it is also through a positive and nurturing relationship that we develop the resilience to stave off the adverse effects of traumatic events. For example, a mother who has bestowed upon her child a nurturing mutual attachment may equip the child with the wherewithal to weather adversities in life. We recover from the adverse effects of trauma within a social context through a newfound ability to form nurturing attachments and relationships or redefining dysfunctional ones and transforming them to heal us.

As an illustration, let me share a story of a unique group of people that demonstrates the power of positive relationships in averting the ill effects of adverse life experiences. I completed my college education at a government university for Manila’s public high school graduates. Pamantasan Ng Lungsod ng Maynila (PLM) or University of the City of Manila first opened its doors in 1967. I was among the first students admitted after passing a competitive admission exam. In those days, a large majority of PLM students, including myself, were from poor families. Many lived and grew up in stressful and dangerous districts of Manila. We came from the slums where living conditions were so marginal that when typhoons hit, these places were submerged in floodwater. Garbage was not regularly collected, and many homes had no running water. Drugs and crimes were rampant, and gang violence was a common occurrence. Many families who settled in the slums were migrants who came to Manila from the provinces searching for jobs and economic opportunities.

Despite these unfortunate circumstances, many of us successfully completed college and moved on to extricate ourselves from the slums and find success in life. Where did this resilience come from?

I’m familiar with the family backgrounds of many of my schoolmates based on their own accounts and my actual visits to their homes. We all share a common love for our parents and family, which is why our resilience and ability to rise above adversities. Our parents provided us with stability in the face of life’s uncertainties.

We were blessed with parents who loved and sacrificed to feed, clothe and send their children to school. Our relationships with our parents were forged in fire, borne out of common hardship, and nurtured by a lifelong attachment. These relationships weathered many challenges, and the bond remained strong even in old age. It is the common thread of our life story and the secret of our success.

Although trauma was such a big deal, our strong attachment to our parents and nurturing hands made us resilient and spared us the adverse effects of our difficult past.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR  Dr. Fernando B. Perfas is an addiction specialist who has written several books and articles on the subject. He currently provides training and consulting services to various government and non-government drug treatment agencies regarding drug treatment and prevention approaches. He can be reached at fbperfas@gmail.com.

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