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Trauma... what is it exactly?

To understand a word, it is always interesting to look at its etymology. In ancient Greek, "traumatismos" is the act of injuring and "trauma" is the injury.

Just like surgical trauma, which designates a mechanical shock exerted on a part of the body, causing an injury or a contusion, psychological trauma is such a shock exerted on the psyche that leads to psychological disturbances in a transitory or lasting manner. The psyche is then frightened by an overflow of massive emotions. This shock arrives through a sudden event that brutally confronts the person with death, a threat of death or injury, and sexual violence (Pedinielli, 2015).

This confrontation causes a state of torpor in the psyche, which becomes frozen, immobilized at the traumatic moment. This is why in the case of repetition symptoms, the person is constantly brought back to the initial scene. Trauma can be defined by the violence of the event itself, but not only! It is also defined by its pathological consequences. The event triggers painful phenomena that are partly due to itself, but also to the context and the personality of the individual. This means that the same event will not have the same impact depending on the person concerned and their history.

The psychiatrist Judith Herman (1992) has classified trauma into two categories:

  • The "simple" trauma which is induced by a single event, limited in time, with a clear beginning and end, like a fire for example. In short, it is a one-time event in the life of the person who experiences it.

  • "Complex" trauma is a repetition of various forms of violence over a long period of time, as in the case of domestic violence. In particular, when the person is subjected to another person or group for several months or even several years. When the person is exposed to deleterious events for a long time and frequently.

When trauma occurs in childhood, the psyche is still being constructed. It can therefore modify the emotional and cognitive development. The older and more repeated the trauma, the more likely it is to leave lasting marks on the personality and to lead to repetitive behaviors marked by suffering.

At the beginning, the reactions are identical to those of a simple trauma, but little by little, certain manifestations diminish or disappear while others are maintained or, on the contrary, emerge, particularly alterations in character with the ability to express and manage emotions, alterations in the relationship with oneself with guilt, shame, low self-esteem or dissociation, alterations in the relationship with others with difficulty in establishing or maintaining quality relationships, which is a hindrance to the establishment of intimate relationships. There are also alterations in the relationship to the world with a recurrent feeling of detachment, loss of meaning or insecurity, as well as alterations in the relationship to temporality with a difficulty in projecting oneself into a happy future, as well as somatoform disorders with, among others, dermatological, respiratory, digestive, cardiac or menstrual problems (Josse, 2017).

Having a loved one who has experienced trauma, or being repeatedly exposed to situations or stories that are difficult for a professional can also cause trauma. This is called vicarious trauma, or indirect trauma. By being in close contact with a person in distress, family, friends, colleagues, volunteers, caregivers, or law enforcement are confronted with situations that cause them to experience intense emotions and can in turn create great suffering (Josse, 2019).

The trauma, is an invisible wound, which leaves traces in the psyche. And like a scar, it can reopen under the effect of another painful event, or an anniversary. It can also be transmitted in a transgenerational way, especially when it is secret or not elaborated or symbolized. It is inscribed in the body's memory, like an imprint. Its memory is implicit, meaning that the person who suffers from it does not always remember it consciously or categorize it as a trauma. But the body carries its memory, which is always active at the cellular level.

And yes, the trauma is encoded in the body memory! It is according to the environment in which the child grows up that the cerebral functioning and the somato-psychic system are formed. By using all the resources at his disposal at that time, the child sets up defense systems, that is to say certain modes of discharge of the neuronal networks. However, when a certain type of neural network is put in place during childhood, it persists thereafter, even into adulthood, whether it is functional or not (Countanceau and Smith, 2011). These are implicit memories, to which consciousness does not have access, which are reactivated unconsciously and which then direct the adult's reactions in an automatic manner. It is like a kind of biological programming.

However, there is no need to demonize these mechanisms, at one point the child, now an adult, needed them and it was the best way for him to respond at the time. However, when these mechanisms are no longer optimal in the present time, it is possible and desirable to modify them, to get out of the repetitions of the past which lock in the reproduction of patterns of painful experiences. It is then a question of not being reactive anymore but of finding one's free will and expressing one's internal potentialities that have not been explored until now.

But then how to heal from these inner wounds?

There are several ways to change paradigm, at one's own pace, and move towards an inner transformation. Each person can use his or her inventiveness, what calls him or her, awaken motivation and desire, with the help of competent professionals and a supportive environment to rediscover his or her creative way of being in the world, in his or her uniqueness.

  • Psychotherapy allows, among other things, to put words, and therefore meaning, on experiences in order to better understand oneself, but also to restructure the body-mind system. There are countless approaches, all of which bring their own prism of reading and their own original way of working. The important thing, beyond the approach, is the relationship of trust with the psychotherapist. To do this, follow your feelings, which will tell you whether this or that person is right for you to explore yourself!

  • Having restorative experiences, especially in relationships, shows that another script is possible, and little by little this new way of relating to oneself, to others and to the world is engrammed and becomes a new normality.

  • Practices that reconnect the body and mind, such as yoga, dance, singing, theater, sports, painting, crafts or meditation. They help to immerse oneself in the moment through bodily connection, to calm the body's alarm system, they bring joy and gradually participate in separating memory of the past from the present, to reappropriate the body through its sensations (Van der Kolk, 2014).

Astrid Jullien

Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist

Psychotherapy in Paris and online (video, telephone)


Coutanceau, R. & Smith, J. (2011). Violence et famille: Comprendre pour prévenir. Dunod.

Josse, É. (2017). Chapitre 21. Le traumatisme complexe. Dans : , C. Tarquinio, M. Brennsthul, H. Dellucci, M. Iracane-Coste, J. Rydberg, M. Silvestre & E. Zimmerman (Dir), Pratique de la psychothérapie EMDR.

Herman-Lewis, J. (1992). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence-from domestic abuse to political terror. Basic Books.

Josse, É. (2019). Le traumatisme psychique chez l'adulte. De Boeck Supérieur.

Pedinielli, J., Mariage, A. (2015). Psychopathologie du traumatisme. Armand Colin.

Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma. penguin UK.

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