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    117. The psychology of trauma ft. Dr MC McDonald

    Pay attention to your body, validate your feelings, and integrate the trauma to prevent it from affecting your life and future.

    enAugust 18, 2023

    About this Episode

    Trauma seems like a bit of a black box at times, something that we all experience as part of our life journey as humans but surrounded by a lot of misinformation. In this episode, we are joined by our guest, Dr MC McDonald, author of The Trauma Response Is Never Wrong to break down all of the science and psychology behind why we react to trauma the way we do, suppressed memories, what actually counts as 'traumatic' and the impact of trauma on our body. We also explore some of the more unexpected traumas we encounter and attempt to answer the question "will I ever heal from my trauma?". All that and more in this episode. 

    Follow Dr MC: https://www.instagram.com/mc.phd/

    Purchase her book here: https://www.amazon.com/Unbroken-Trauma-Response-Never-Things/dp/1683648846

    Follow me: https://www.instagram.com/thatpsychologypodcast/ 

    Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/ThePsychologyofyour20s 

    See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

    🔑 Key Takeaways

    • Trauma has the power to disrupt the narrative of our lives, challenging our sense of self. It is important to recognize that anyone can experience trauma, and understanding it can help us better understand ourselves.
    • The current definition of trauma in psychology and psychiatry is limited, causing misdiagnosis and inadequate treatment. We need to consider individual responses to trauma and provide personalized approaches for support.
    • Trauma is an unresolved emotional experience that requires finding a place for our memories. Processing and making sense of trauma with the help of others is crucial for closure and meaning.
    • Using the term "trauma" casually can diminish its true significance and hinder the study and healing of genuine traumatic events. It is essential to be mindful of language and support those who have truly experienced trauma.
    • Trauma is a nuanced experience that requires careful consideration and understanding. Not all breakups or war experiences result in trauma, emphasizing the importance of acknowledging individual experiences and the challenges of the twenties.
    • Understanding the factors that contribute to resilience, such as childhood experiences and support systems, can help individuals navigate the intense and turbulent experiences of their twenties and facilitate healing.
    • Psychology may not always provide precise answers, but acknowledging shared experiences and studying protective factors can help individuals overcome challenges.
    • Our brain is flexible, trauma responses are natural, and understanding the mind-body connection helps us take control of our experiences and responses.
    • Chronic stress can lead to inflammation, causing a range of symptoms and health issues. Trauma can also have long-lasting effects on the body, affecting pain, digestion, sleep, and fertility. It's important to address triggers and seek support rather than avoiding or ignoring them.
    • Our brain's trauma response is a natural and adaptive mechanism aimed at safeguarding us. Rather than reliving traumatic experiences, it is more beneficial to address current behaviors for a more fulfilling life.
    • Pay attention to your body, validate your feelings, and integrate the trauma to prevent it from affecting your life and future.
    • By identifying the emotions, story, and meaning associated with our memories, we can gain closure and create a more meaningful narrative for ourselves.
    • Our actions and emotions can be driven by a desire for validation and the need to prove our worth, highlighting the significance of addressing and healing from underlying traumas through a personalized approach.
    • It is normal for emotions attached to memories to change over time, and having emotional content in our stories helps us integrate our past experiences while still moving forward.
    • You are not alone in your struggle. By discussing and understanding trauma, healing is possible, and there is so much more to life beyond the traces of trauma.

    📝 Podcast Summary

    Understanding trauma: its impact on our lives and sense of self

    Trauma is a complex and often misunderstood concept. While the word trauma is frequently used casually, it holds significant psychological meaning. Dr. Mary Catherine McDonald, an interdisciplinary expert in trauma, explains that trauma can disrupt or shatter the narrative structure of our lives. Our experiences may fit into a story form, and traumatic events can challenge or break that story. However, there is ongoing debate within the field of psychology regarding what qualifies as trauma. It is important to recognize that everyone has the potential to experience trauma, and it is not limited to specific age groups or life stages. By understanding trauma from a psychological perspective, we can gain insights into the nature of the self and identity.

    Redefining Trauma: Moving beyond the DSM's Narrow Definition

    The field of psychology and psychiatry needs to redefine its understanding of trauma. Currently, the DSM lists only three potential traumatic experiences: actual or threatened death, serious injury, and sexual violence. However, this narrow definition fails to account for the wide range of traumatic experiences that individuals may face. Many people who exhibit symptoms of PTSD do not meet the DSM criteria for a traumatic stressor, leading to misdiagnosis and inadequate treatment. Instead of relying on a fixed list, it is important to focus on individual responses to determine the presence of trauma. By expanding our understanding and acknowledging the complexity of trauma, we can provide more holistic and personalized approaches to support those who have been affected.

    Understanding Trauma and the Importance of Processing and Making Sense of Memories

    Trauma is defined as an unbearable emotional experience that lacks a relational home. This definition sets a high bar for what constitutes trauma, preventing us from labeling every minor inconvenience as such. It also emphasizes the importance of finding a dwelling place for our experiences, whether they are good or overwhelming, within ourselves or with the help of others. Trauma is essentially an injury of memory, where the memory is not integrated correctly. Integrated memories have closure and meaning, while trauma memories remain fragmented and disorganized. In order to find closure and assign significance to these traumatic memories, we need the support and assistance of others to help us process and make sense of them.

    The Importance of Differentiating Between Trauma and Mundane Experiences

    Using the term "trauma" to describe mundane experiences such as breakups can diminish its actual meaning and impact. While it is common for people to refer to breakups as traumatic, it is essential to consider whether it is an accurate description. The casual use of the term may stem from a need to validate one's experiences or express the overwhelming nature of everyday life. However, this can dilute the significance of trauma and hinder its study and healing. It is crucial to be mindful of the language we use and avoid stretching the term beyond its intended scope. By understanding the true weight of trauma, we can better address and support those who have experienced genuine traumatic events.

    The Nuances of Trauma and its Individual Impact

    Trauma is a complex and nuanced experience. While more people talking about trauma can reduce the stigma and encourage help-seeking, it is important to be cautious about how we discuss and use the concept. Breakups, for example, can sometimes be traumatic, but not all breakups are inherently traumatic. Similarly, not all war experiences result in PTSD. The conversation highlights the need for more nuance and consideration of the individual's unique experiences and reverberations of events. Additionally, the conversation acknowledges that the twenties can be a challenging decade, with significant life transitions and a shaky grasp on control, potentially leading to a greater susceptibility to interpreting events as traumatic.

    Enhancing Resilience and Facilitating Healing in the Twenties

    The Twenties can be a very intense and turbulent decade, filled with terrifying, isolating, and confusing experiences. It is a time of missteps and mistakes that feel catastrophic. While some people may be more resilient than others, there are still many layers that contribute to one's ability to cope with trauma. Factors such as developmental years, support systems, rigidity or openness as a personality trait, and even biological factors like glucocorticoid steroid receptors, all play a role in resilience. However, rigidity can hinder healing. The conversation also highlights the importance of understanding and exploring childhood experiences as they often serve as the origin of current challenges in life. By examining these factors more in-depth and having nuanced discussions, it may be possible to enhance resilience and facilitate healing.

    The limitations and debate surrounding the field of psychology and the importance of studying both negative and positive childhood experiences.

    The field of psychology needs to be approached with caution and an understanding that it may not provide the precision and truth that we often expect from a science. While there may be a lack of literature on specific experiences like ENT, it is important to recognize that others may share similar experiences that are simply not spoken about. The conversation also highlights the ongoing debate about whether psychology should be treated as a proper science or allowed to retain its interdisciplinary and flexible nature. Additionally, the discussion emphasizes the significance of studying not only adverse childhood experiences but also positive childhood experiences, as these can have a significant impact on individuals' lives. Overall, this conversation reminds us that psychology is only as good as its study design and that acknowledging protective factors can help individuals navigate the challenges they face.

    The Power of Neuroplasticity and the Mind-Body Connection

    Psychology and neuroscience have shown us that the brain is far more malleable than we previously thought. Adverse childhood experiences do not hardwire behaviors, and we have agency to change and intervene in our own experiences. Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to rewire itself, plays a crucial role in this process. It is important to understand that the mind and body are interconnected, and what happens in the mind also affects the body. Our trauma responses are not signs of weakness or disorder, but rather signs of strength, as they originally evolved to keep us alive. Our nervous system is designed to toggle between stress and relaxation, adapting to threats in our environment. The sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the fight or flight response, is extremely alert and can activate in less than a second.

    Understanding the Impact of Stress on the Body.

    Our bodies are designed to toggle back and forth between stress and relaxation in order to adapt to our environment. However, when we get stuck in stress, it creates chronic inflammation in the body, leading to various symptoms and breakdowns. These symptoms may appear disconnected and unrelated to stress, but they can actually be disease related to stress. Trauma can have a profound impact on the body, causing chronic pain, gastrointestinal issues, sleep disorders, and even infertility. Additionally, overwhelming experiences can result in unintegrated memory files, which can be triggered by familiar stimuli, putting us into a chronic fight or flight state. Triggers should be seen as indicators that something needs to be addressed, rather than something to avoid or ignore.

    Understanding the Trauma Response: A Protective Mechanism

    Our brains have a natural and adaptive response to trauma. The trauma response aims to protect us and increase our chances of survival by reducing pain and exposure to threat. This response may involve suppressing traumatic memories and disconnecting from the experience. While it may be viewed as disorganized or a sign of weakness, it is crucial to understand that this response is a biological adaptation. Our brains make the miraculous decision of what we can cope with and what we can't. It is important to respect this process and not disturb it. We don't always need to actively seek out and relive traumatic experiences. Instead, we can focus on addressing and working with the behaviors that manifest in our adult lives, allowing us to lead more fulfilling lives.

    Three Steps to Healing from Trauma

    Healing from trauma involves three important steps: noticing it, validating it, and integrating it. It is crucial to pay attention to our bodies and the signals they provide as they serve as barometers, giving us important data about our needs and experiences. By actively tuning in to how we feel in different situations, we can identify and acknowledge the presence of trauma. Instead of going to war with our feelings, we need to validate them and avoid shaming ourselves. This means accepting that it's okay to still feel a certain way and not rushing the healing process. Finally, integrating the trauma requires understanding how it has affected our memories and finding ways to ground ourselves while working through it. By doing so, we can prevent it from impacting our relationships, work, and overall future.

    Finding Closure through Understanding Memories

    Our memories often lack closure, leading them to continue impacting our lives even when we no longer want them to. We may find certain events or experiences constantly reappearing in our thoughts, causing us to question why they still hold significance. One reason for this is that we may assign the wrong meaning or significance to these memories, causing our brains to constantly remind us to reassess and reevaluate them. By taking agency over our stories and psychology, we can empower ourselves to gain a deeper understanding of our memories. This involves identifying the emotional content, the story, and the meaning tags associated with each memory file. By doing so, we can find closure and create a more cohesive narrative for ourselves.

    The Influence of Past Experiences and Fears on Perception and Actions

    Our past experiences, beliefs, and fears can deeply influence how we perceive and react to certain situations. The example of a friendship breakup serves as a proxy for underlying insecurities and fears about ourselves. It reveals that our actions and emotions can be driven by a desire for validation and the need to prove that we are not "bad" or unlovable. It also highlights the significance of unprocessed traumas from our past, whether it be childhood experiences or negative narratives imposed by others. Understanding the fears beneath the surface and acknowledging the unique narratives we hold is essential in addressing and healing from trauma. While trauma may not completely disappear, it can be managed and healed through a holistic perspective and personalized approach.

    The Importance of Emotional Content in Memories

    Our memories are built to have emotional content, and it is normal for those emotions to change over time. Feeling sad or upset when recalling a painful memory does not necessarily mean that healing has not occurred or that the trauma is still present. On the other hand, if there is no emotional content when sharing a story, it may indicate an issue. Integration of memories is an important process in moving forward. It allows us to prioritize new experiences and joyful moments, while still acknowledging the significance of past events. We should not resist progress and healing out of fear of losing what we have already lost. We have the ability to redefine our identities and let go of memories that no longer serve us as our primary focus.

    Healing is Possible: Overcoming Trauma and Moving Forward

    Healing is possible for those who have experienced trauma. MC McDonald wants listeners to know that even though they may feel alone and trapped by their trauma, it won't always feel that way. They are not alone in their struggle, and there is so much more life to live beyond the traces of trauma. Jemma Sbeg expresses that this conversation was like therapy to her and that she learned a great deal from it. She commends MC McDonald for demystifying the symptoms of trauma and helping people heal. MC McDonald's book, "Unbroken: The Trauma Response is Never Wrong," is recommended for those seeking more in-depth insight into the topic. Overall, the conversation emphasizes the importance of discussing and understanding trauma to move forward and heal.

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