May 14, 2024

What Do We Mean by Trauma?

Thomas shares his understanding of the nature of trauma and what is most essential for us to heal as individuals and as a collective. He explains that trauma is not something that should be stigmatized but is actually an intelligent evolutionary response that has helped humans survive overwhelming and painful experiences.

But when these events are not fully felt, processed, and integrated, they become frozen in our subconscious, making us reactive to triggers, and causing us to become either hyperactivated or dissociated and numb. He explores how we can learn to instead be responsive to these moments, absorbing crucial learning from our reactions, giving us the space and awareness to be present, related, and open to inspiration for constructive solutions and positive change.

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“When I’m reactive, I’m using behaviors and reactions that I replayed already many times. When I respond, my inspiration, my intuition, my presence are part of the situation. I’m staying related.”

- Thomas Hübl

Guest Information

Thomas Hübl

Thomas Hübl is a renowned teacher, author, and international facilitator whose work integrates the core insights of the great wisdom traditions and mysticism with the discoveries of science. Since the early 2000s, he has been facilitating large-scale events and courses that focus on meditation and mindfulness-based awareness practices, as well as the healing and integration of trauma.

His non-profit organization, The Pocket Project, works to support the healing of collective trauma throughout the world. He is the author of the book Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds.

His new book Attuned: Practicing Interdependence to Heal Our Trauma—and Our World is available now wherever books are sold. Visit attunedbook.com for links to order it online.

For more information, visit thomashuebl.com

Notes & Resources

Key points from this episode include:

  • How trauma is not the experience itself, but our response to it
  • Unresolved trauma and how it gets passed on to future generations through genetics and attachment wounds
  • Turning reactive moments into related ones, and how we can learn from them in order to heal
  • How time is a crucial factor in the understanding of trauma
  • The transgenerational data flow that includes the strength and wisdom of our ancestors, as well as their wounds
  • How we can turn historical and ancestral trauma into wisdom for a better future

Episode Transcript

Thomas Hübl: We will start today with some foundational definition and description of what I refer to when I say trauma. Because at the beginning of our exploration, it will be good that we are all on the same page when we use the word trauma.

And we could say in a simple version, trauma is not the experience that we are going through that is overwhelming, painful, and overloading for our body, our nervous system, our emotional experience, our mental experience, but trauma is describing the response that happens within us within a traumatizing situation.

Because the trauma that we usually refer to or work with when we are looking at our own difficulties, issues, tensions, stress, and so forth, is actually a crystallized moment that happened usually in the past, either in my past, my childhood, in my ancestors’ past, in the past of my culture and the ancestors, or within a system of trauma that has been perpetuated and going on for thousands of years throughout the history of humanity where traumatizations happened and have been healed and integrated and happened again and so forth.

So we are looking at the trauma response within our nervous systems, within our physical and psychological experiences. And when we zoom into that trauma response, we actually see that evolution put a very intelligent function in place. So throughout the evolution of life, because we are not the first ones that experienced some kind of trauma, our nervous systems developed a very intelligent function called trauma response.

And when we are overwhelmed and overloaded strongly, we can split off a part of our internal experience through numbing, dissociating, and shutting down and freezing. And we can shut one part off that contains all the stress and some of the physical and emotional pain in order for us to survive better. And it’s very important because there is often a stigma when we speak about trauma, as if we are looking at something bad, something dysfunctional, something we shouldn’t have. When in fact, in the moment of strong overwhelm, the trauma response was a very necessary, intelligent function that saved us. That helped us to survive better. That helped us to go through a situation and still be able to function.

Of course, after that situation or event or experience or series of experiences, we carry the aftereffects of that split and fragmentation within ourselves. And so the trauma response comes with dissociation, numbing, and fragmentation, and it also comes with an overload of stress, a hyperactivation. So I’m very stressed, I feel very strong emotions, and I’m overloaded. So, these two things: overload and hyperactivation; numbing and dissociation.

And often I describe it with an image that I think shows the quality of trauma strongly. When you imagine you sit at home and you have a big TV screen and the TV screen shows a very noisy war situation and it’s loud. And then, at a certain moment, you take the remote control and you mute the TV. It’s still going on, but without sound. It’s mute. So, that’s what we often experience in overwhelming moments. It’s still going on, but it’s like we become two-dimensional. We are like ghosts in a movie, we get the feeling we are experiencing life like when we a watch a movie. So we disconnect from our body awareness, from our emotional experience, we pull back in either, or we disembody and we numb ourselves so it’s not that painful, like an anesthesia. That’s where we are, like an anesthesia. So it’s like an anesthesia that shuts down the pain that is too overwhelming.

That’s why it becomes a bit like ghostly. And in our developmental model, we call this the 2D state: life suddenly becomes two-dimensional. It’s not any more three-dimensional and direct. It’s a bit like a ghost. And if we deepen that experience, so then we can say we take the TV and we throw it into the ocean. And slowly—you still see the war scene going on—and it’s drowning. It’s dropping into the ocean. And there’s a certain moment when you don’t see it anymore. So that split-off hyperactivated part drowns in the ocean of the subconscious, and that’s where it rests. And today on the bottom of the ocean, there are many TVs in the collective unconscious. The collection of all our trauma dissociations is still going on. Those scenes are still playing, but without our awareness. And the scenes of our ancestors are still playing without our awareness.

And all of that describes, in a way, what we might experience as symptoms when we are met by life and recall it in triggering moments when old trauma that hasn’t been integrated yet gets triggered. We might feel either disconnected, indifferent, numb, frozen, unable to respond to the current situation appropriately, or we feel hyperactivated, hyperfearful, hyperemotional, hyperstressed, and often small situations in daily life can induce a massive response or reaction that is not in alignment with what the situation actually needs.

So either I’m too numb and too disconnected or I’m overactivated and overreacting, but I can’t find a regulated middle path, like a relational response to the situation. That’s why we discern between reactivity as a reaction before I actually could feel the experience fully and a responsiveness—means I experience and feel the moment and then I respond to it. These are two very different states of being and dealing with a situation. Reactivity is: I experienced a triggered situation, I shut down; I feel the shutdown that I carry inside or the stress, and I react before I really experience the situation, the person, the moment, the life circumstance,
fully. So, I can’t respond with my full capacity. So, I’m reactive. And I guess we all know reactive moments in our life versus responsive moments. Responsive moments have space, have awareness, and we respond usually from a place of listening, digesting, responding, acting. So when I’m reactive, I’m using behaviors and reactions that I replayed already many times. When I respond, my inspiration, my intuition, my presence are part of the situation. I’m staying related.

When I’m reactive, I’m not related anymore. I don’t feel the person anymore. I don’t feel maybe myself anymore. And I don’t have my higher capacities of intuition and inspiration or innovation online. So I’m reacting, informed by my past. Versus responding is that the present moment, my relatedness to you and my
inspiration can inform the moment. Which means there’s a much higher chance to be creative, to find solutions, to be able to create updates to certain situations. It’s more spontaneous, it’s emergent, it’s sometimes surprising. And most of all, it’s in relation to what’s happening.

In my reactive moments, I’m in relation with my unintegrated past. And that’s important because when we have reactive moments and we let them pass by unexamined, or we judge ourselves, we say, “Oh, I shouldn’t have done this. And why did I do this?” And now I feel guilty. And now I’m very critical with myself and I’m judgmental. Then I actually miss totally the message of the situation. But if I say, “Yes, I have been triggered.” I was reactive in an intimate relationship conversation, at work, in society, and I come back after some time when I can make space in my life—in the evening or when I have space later on in the day—and I reflect on the reactive moment, I say, okay, I touched my own unintegrated past.

So the feelings that informed me were not just feelings concerning that situation but was a reactivation of my past. So suddenly I felt angry or suddenly I felt very fearful or suddenly I felt very sad or ashamed because the current moment touched my unintegrated past.

So one foundational teaching is about reactivity informed by the past and a signpost to trauma; responsiveness informed by the present moment and the emergence of the future is informed by the relation to the current experience and the current moment. The one speaks the past, the other one speaks presence and the future. And that’s very important because if we, step by step, turn, use the teaching that reactive moments hold and transform them into relatedness, first of all we will have more responsive moments in our life, but also we will use the signs of life to heal. So in reactive moments, I can get to know my shadow landscape. In reactive moments, I get to know my trauma landscape. And that’s fantastic because if I can slowly relax the judgmental part of myself, the critical part of myself and say, wow, there is a learning here possible. I can learn—within those moments or after those moments—I can learn something deeper about myself and I can uncover what I can’t see, what is hidden, what is unconscious to my current awareness.

And the other part that I will speak about a little more: in the last module, when we speak about time, because I believe time is a crucial factor in the understanding of trauma, is also that unintegratedness—as you remember, I spoke before about, there’s an overwhelming experience; I needed to split off one part that holds the whole overwhelm so that the rest of my self can still be engaged and act or run away or do something, so that part is now a split off bubble in myself. That’s what gets triggered in a reactive moment. And it’s information that, at that point in time, gets frozen here. So, these trauma fragmentations live inside of myself, or everybody, on the level where they have been created.

So if somebody gets traumatized at age five, the trauma fragmentation lives in the nervous system on the level of the development of age five. Somebody gets traumatized in school at age 12 through mobbing, then the trauma lives on a different level of development. For the healing and the integration process, that’s important because we see sometimes we react like a 3-year-old or a 5-year-old or a 10-year-old. So then we are grown up human beings, but our reactivity shows emotional patterns, behaviors that are much younger than my current state and the age that my passport says.

And so, for the understanding of trauma, we can summarize a little bit that we said trauma is actually a trauma response to an overwhelming, traumatizing situation. And it consists, usually, out of two elements, a dissociated numbed and shutdown part; a hyperactivated, highly stressed and highly emotional part. So it
creates, in a way, two. And that’s also what we can suffer from is that either, when it gets triggered, we become numb, we feel disconnected, we don’t feel anymore as part of the current experience, or we feel hyperreactive and we overreact in moments that actually don’t need that strong emotional or stress response. And so my past speaks, and that’s why we often run into difficulties because that creates side effects in our lives, in our partnerships, in our relationships with colleagues and in our society.

The other part is that when we speak about trauma, of course there is shock trauma, that’s what happens to us when an accident happens or an injury happens, so then there’s trauma, but trauma has a much more complex and sophisticated dimension in the attachment process when we grow up as kids, we all know attachment trauma. And then we go deeper. And of course, attachment trauma also includes prenatal traumatization. But then there is transgenerational trauma transmission, that when ancestors got traumatized and they passed on the trauma through epigenetics and genetics, and then also through, of course, the attachment process that the parents are able to provide, so we carry actually in the transgenerational communication that our genetic and epigenetic environment is representing, so there’s a transgenerational data flow that communicates all the skills, all the resources, all the learning of humanity of life so far. But it also communicates hurts and high stress levels and different hormonal balances and receptors. And it’s a very sophisticated form of communicating life from one generation to the next.

And then there is historic trauma. This is maybe a whole population of a state or an ethnicity went through a massive traumatization. So a whole collective has been effected, which includes individual trauma, but also the fact that the collective experienced it together has an amplifying effect. And then we talk about the dimension of collective trauma in the sense of the syndemic or the systems effect of trauma that has been going on for thousands of years. And that we have been born into a world that has integrated structures of consciousness, in ourselves and society, but also carries trauma structures or frozen elements that also look like structures to us because that’s the world we get to know when we grow up in it. But actually, those are not functional structures of consciousness. These are frozen elements of past, unintegrated elements that are not able to fully participate in the evolutionary emergence. And that’s why they create symptoms.

And I believe that’s a short overview. As we all know, trauma is such a huge landscape and there is more and more material and there are more and more studies out there. And in various disciplines, many people study trauma and the physiological, the psychological, the societal aspects of trauma. So that’s amazing because like that, we deepen very, very quickly our understanding, neuroscience and so on.

And maybe for this module here, one more thing is not to forget that even if I showed now the whole landscape of trauma, that we are not the first ones coming into life, and we are not the first ones experiencing overwhelming situations. And that means that we are also embodying the resilience and the strength and the capacity to heal ourselves that our ancestors passed on to us. And I think that’s very important as well, that there is already a strength and a self-healing mechanism active in us that comes through thousands and thousands of years of integration and healing and the immune system being active and being taught and the collective immune system being active and taught in order to be the ones that are relating to this world today. And so we have both, we have the strengths of our ancestry, and we also carry the wounds of our ancestry in order to support those wounds to heal and turn into wisdom.