Episode 2: A New (More Complete) Definition of Trauma

lindsey lockett sitting on a mid-century danish folding chair with her elbows on her knees

the definition of trauma from the holistic trauma healing podcast The current definitions of trauma are woefully inadequate and much too broad, neglecting those of us who do deal with trauma’s mysterious effects on our bodies, minds, and emotions. Of particular interest is how trauma manifests as chronic illness or pain, how it affects the autonomic nervous system, and a (perhaps) prescriptive way of defining trauma from a place of consciousness and intention to heal.

Show Notes

In this episode, I:

  • offer a new and more complete definition of trauma
  • discuss how trauma manifests as chronic illness or pain, how it affects the autonomic nervous system
  • list physical symptoms of autonomic nervous system dysfunction
  • discuss physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and ancestral manifestations of trauma
  • discuss our inability as children to express emotions and process trauma
  • discuss how trauma is stored in the body
  • offer a (perhaps) prescriptive way of defining trauma from a place of consciousness



[INTRO MUSIC] This is episode two of the Holistic Trauma Healing Podcast. In this episode, I hope to provide a new and more complete definition of trauma. I want to prove two things to you. The first is that the current existing definitions of trauma are, I feel woefully inadequate. And the second is that knowing exactly what trauma is, is the first step in holistically healing. It. So let’s start with the way the dictionary defines trauma. The dictionary definition of trauma is 1) a deeply distressing or disturbing experience and 2) physical injury. I don’t know about you, but that feels woefully inadequate to me. I mean, who defines what a deeply distressing or disturbing experience is? Is it not reasonable to assume that what’s deeply distressing and disturbing for one person might not be for another person? The American Psychological Association does a little better with their definition. They define trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event. Like an accident rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea”. So I’m really glad that the APA goes into more depth than the dictionary, but I still feel like this definition of trauma is perhaps too broad. I’m also glad that the APA includes a couple of physical symptoms in their definition of trauma, because for many of us mysterious and or chronic health symptoms are often the most obvious clues that we have unresolved trauma or that trauma has damaged us. It doesn’t matter if the trauma is physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or ancestral, it really doesn’t matter. And most of us, well, all of us, I would say have all of those types of trauma. The physical health symptoms, however, are sort of real, tangible evidence. It’s something we can put our finger on. It’s something we can label. And I don’t love the idea of labels, but I do think that it helps to be able to categorize or at least put into words what it is that we’re experiencing. And you can categorize, you can verbalize, “I have a headache. I feel depressed. I feel anxious. I feel pain all over my body” or whatever. The physical health symptoms of trauma are the tangible evidence of a body, a brain, and a spirit crying out for help. So I’d like to touch on the physical health symptoms or the physical aspect of trauma for a moment. One of my favorite resources is Dr. Patrick Nemechek’s website and his book, The Nemechek Protocol. And I will include links to all of the resources that I mention in the show notes of the podcast. To summarize Dr. Nemechek’s perspective, trauma is defined as anything that inhibits the function of the autonomic nervous system. If you’re a health and wellness junkie, as many of us are, or we wouldn’t be searching for things like “holistic healing” on podcasts, you may be familiar with the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is the part of our nervous system that is typically called the fight or flight part. The autonomic nervous system has two branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. And those of us with trauma, particularly the physical and mental symptoms of trauma are most often in a sympathetic nervous system dominant state — meaning that the fight or flight aspect of our physiology is on overdrive. It’s hyperactive. It’s constantly stimulated. The autonomic nervous system controls all of the basic and necessary functions in our bodies. So these are the things that we don’t have to think about. They’re involuntary, our bodies just do them. So these are things like our circulation, breathing, hormone, production, digestion, sex drive, immune system function, blood pressure, sleep cycles, et cetera. And most of the chronic and mysterious health conditions that trauma sufferers experience fall under the job of the autonomic nervous system. So I’m going to share a list that I have of physical health conditions that are often chronic and mysterious. And as I go down this list, I just want you to see how many, if any you can check off of the list. So these include things like anxiety, panic attacks, and depression, insomnia or the opposite, sleeping too much, PMS, dizziness, heart palpitations, postural orthostatic tachycardia, which is abbreviated POTS, low blood pressure, excessive hunger or excessive thirst, chronic pain or chronic fatigue, impaired immune function or auto-immune disease, headaches and migraines, heartburn, irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhea, bladder and pelvic floor dysfunction, autism, ADD, ADHD, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, erectile dysfunction, and even varicose veins. So, if you want to pause a second and rewind a bit, you can listen to that list again and just see how many you can check off. And this is by no means a diagnostic criteria. I want to be really clear. I’m not diagnosing anybody with anything. All the things I just mentioned fall under circulation, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, hormone production, immune system functions. All of those things are under the jurisdiction of the autonomic nervous system. So, this is the part of trauma that I feel is inadequately defined. It’s the actual physical symptoms that those of us with trauma experience that we may have no clue are even connected to our trauma. We may not be able to consciously say, “I was abused as a child, and now I have fibromyalgia. And it was the trauma of the child abuse that has brought on the fibromyalgia.” Most of us can not define our physical symptoms as succinctly as that. But I do want you to know that trauma causes physical symptoms because it causes actual brain injury. Makes no difference whether that trauma is from a concussion or our alcoholic, co-dependent, narcissistic mother. It makes no difference if the trauma is from a car accident or if it’s from the grief of losing a parent or a loved one. So there’s another addition to the trauma definition, and that is that it is any event or series of events that impairs the functioning of our autonomic nervous systems. And it doesn’t matter again, if the trauma is physical, mental, emotional, ancestral, or spiritual. It will be a combination or probably even all of those things, which again, I’m not trying to categorize or label anything, but it does help to have those words in our vocabulary. None of those things exist on their own. We are not just physical beings. We also have minds. We are not just physical beings with minds. We also have emotions. We are not just physical beings who feel and who think, we also have spirits and spirituality. And we are not just physical beings who feel and think and have spirituality. We also have ancestors. And all of these things come together to create our whole person. All of them are connected. So emotional abuse causes physical sickness. Physical sickness is really tough to handle mentally and emotionally. Ancestral trauma can look a lot like mental illness and physical illness. It’s important to point out that although we may be able to label different types of trauma — for instance, one of my own traumas was being beaten with my stepfather’s belt. I can label that as physical abuse. A court of law would certainly label that as physical abuse. But I can also say without doubt, that that caused emotional and mental trauma. So in that way we really can’t categorize trauma. But I believe we can define it better. So I have my own definition of trauma and this has come after many books and listening to different podcasts, my own research and blogs and just being disappointed with the current definitions of trauma. So I decided to come up with my own. My definition of trauma is: any event or a series of events remembered, forgotten, or unknown, which triggers the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses, impairs the function of the autonomic nervous system, causes the person to become stuck in a physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or ancestral loop of unhealthy emotional expression, physical illness, mental illness and repeated generational patterns and is stored as a low frequency energy that must be consciously observed, felt and released in order to heal. I know that’s a really long, detailed definition, right? But, um, I posted that definition on my Instagram stories. And if you aren’t following me on Instagram, you can find me @iamlindseylockett. I posted that definition in my stories. And I asked if anyone wanted to modify it in any way. I didn’t get really any responses to modify my definition of trauma, but I did get a question from someone that caused me to pause and really think, “Do I need to modify my definition?” And her question was related to the very last part that trauma must be consciously observed, felt and released in order to heal. Her question wasn’t that she disagreed with it in any way, but is that a necessary part of defining trauma, since it seems prescriptive that to heal it, it must be consciously observed, felt and released? And I paused on that for a minute. I love it whenever you guys respond to me on Instagram that way, because it really does make me think. And after consideration, I decided that no, I don’t want to modify my definition. I do believe that part of defining trauma is the way that we must heal the trauma. We have to consciously be able to observe what has happened to us, what has happened to our ancestry and our lineage, what has happened to those that we love, we must be able to feel those feelings because they are our feelings and they don’t go away even if we say we don’t feel them anymore. And then the release happens in the feeling because the feelings are temporary. We will never be destroyed or hurt by a feeling long-term if we observe it consciously and feel it. It’s when we try to suppress and fight our feelings and lie about our feelings even to ourselves. And those feelings become trapped in our bodies. And emotion — and this is a really common definition of an emotion so it’s not mine — is energy in motion. Energy never disappears. Scientifically as a fact, this can be proven energy never disappears. It simply changes forms. Just because we feel angry or frustrated or sad or whatever it is that we feel, we can convince ourselves that we don’t feel it. We can try to push that feeling aside. We can distract ourselves from feeling it. We can try to change that feeling or modify it in some way. We can lie about how we feel. And many of us do all of these things to avoid feeling hard feelings. But the feeling still exists regardless of whether we are conscious of it or not. Whether we observe it or not, whether we feel it or not, the feeling still exists and that energy is still there. No matter what. And it is the constant exposure to these energies –the energy of fear, the energy of grief, the energy of sadness, the energy of anger, all of those low frequency energies. It’s the constant exposure to those energies that over time results in complex trauma. So what most of us did not have the vocabulary to say as children, especially if we were raised in homes with abuse or neglect or addiction or alcoholism. What most of us don’t have the vocabulary to express is that when we were three, four, five, 10 years old, we didn’t know how to say, “I feel angry at my parents for doing X. I feel grief that I will never be able to get these years of my childhood back and that my inner child is being damaged. I feel frustrated that my mother can’t get her shit together and actually be a mother to me and I have to parent her instead.” So we didn’t have that vocabulary. And many of us as adults don’t have that vocabulary, but we still had and have the feelings, whether we express them or not. So if we are unable, which most children are, to feel process and release those feelings, the energy of those feelings, doesn’t go away. It gets stored in the physical body. Our bodies are amazingly adaptable and resilient. And so they can store a lot of stuff. They can store a lot of anger and a lot of pain and a lot of frustration and a lot of guilt and a lot of grief. But eventually we reach a tipping point. And for me, I like to call this a trauma threshold and everyone’s trauma threshold is different. My trauma threshold compared to my husband’s trauma threshold is very low. My husband has a pretty high threshold for trauma. He’s able to endure traumatic things or experience stress, and it doesn’t cause long-term effects for him in the same way that it has for me in the past. So I would say that his nervous system is more resilient than my nervous system is. Our nervous systems are just as unique as we are. And our capability to handle trauma is as different as we are. So we can’t say, well, 9/11 is a worse trauma than my childhood abuse because that gets into trauma comparison. And again, if we go back to the dictionary definition of trauma, where it defines it as a deeply distressing or disturbing event? Who’s to say what’s deeply distressing and disturbing? There’s not like a scale that we can measure that by. So I don’t know that I can say that 9/11 was a worse trauma than my childhood abuse. Maybe for the people who were directly involved in 9/11, it was the worse trauma, but I wasn’t directly involved in it. And I don’t want to get into trauma comparison. In future episodes, I do plan to discuss trauma comparison a lot because I think it’s a topic that needs to be aired out. I have a lot to say about trauma comparison and how damaging it really is and invalidating it really is. However I digress. The point is that we didn’t have the language or the vocabulary in childhood to express the feelings. But that didn’t mean that the feelings went away. They got stored in our bodies as a low frequency energy. And when we reached our trauma threshold or when the resiliency of our nervous systems ran out, many of us began to experience physical symptoms. And most of us don’t draw the line to connect what we experienced and the trauma that we are storing inside of us to the physical symptoms that are happening in our bodies. For some of us, the physical symptoms were the symptoms of mental illness, which is again, why we can’t separate it into categories because it’s all connected. Back to my definition of trauma. I do believe that the last part that we must consciously observe, feel, and release trauma in order to heal it, is a necessary part of the definition of trauma. Even if it feels prescriptive. Because if we just define trauma by what it’s done to us, and we don’t define how we move forward in a life that isn’t ruled by the past, then I don’t believe we’ve done the justice of defining it. And we certainly haven’t given anyone any hope. So, again, my definition of trauma is any event or series of events, remembered or forgotten or unknown, which triggers the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses, impairs the function of the autonomic nervous system causes the person to become stuck in a mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, or ancestral loop of unhealthy emotional expression, physical illness, mental illness, and repeated generational patterns and is stored as low frequency energy that must be consciously observed, felt, and released in order to heal. [OUTRO MUSIC] If you have any modifications to my definition of trauma, I would love to hear from you. You can follow me on Instagram @iamlindseylockett, and you can subscribe to all future episodes of this podcast at lindseylockett.com/podcast.