Listen for a moment to this sound (if you are reading this, you will need to press play on the audio version of this article).
To my ears, it is the sweetest sound in the world. My dog-child Max drinking water after 30 minutes of frantically chasing after balls. I could listen to this sound all day long.
I imagine this to be a largely parental joy (more than money, more than fame, even more than your self): the joy of hearing someone you love , manifesting some form of being-OK-with-the-world.
For Max, this is easy. He just needs: food, water, exercise in natural environments, and love. For the rest of us, us ambivalent, conflicted human animals, this peace of mind is not always so simply available.
Two days ago, Max bit me. Quite badly. I was taking off his little brown vest, the harness that he wears when we go out for a walk so as not to put any pressure around his neck from the lead. He growled because I was struggling to undo the clasp that had slipped around near his belly. I was distracted and said something perfunctory, even though said in a soothing way. He may have even growled again (I can’t remember), and then he bit me.
I screamed, lashed out in defence, he shrunk back in terror, whilst at the same time trying to also get some solace from me, his protector, his carer. I knew immediately what was occurring, both within myself and him, so I snapped out of my fearful-angry stress response and calmed him down, before calming myself down and attending to my wounds.
I have had Max since he was a puppy. As he was the first non-human animal I have ever taken full responsibility for, I wanted to start out with a creature that I could pour lots of love and good “training” into, a dog that would grow up stable and secure, who could handle with ease the knocks that life placed in his way, just like it places in all our paths, no matter how fortunate our circumstance are.
I wanted, in short, a dog with “grit”, good emotional regulation, equanimity.
Does not every parent want this for their child? Does not every human want (maybe even demand) this from the other humans they are in relationship with? Do we not demand this from ourselves?
For five years, with my patient training and socialisation, Max became this “ideal” creature through and through. You could touch any part of his body, in any way, as long as you weren’t causing him physical pain, and he would quite happily submit to this manhandling whether it was coming from a small child, me, the vet, his groomer, or anyone else. But in his fifth year, Maxie swallowed a pine cone and needed to spend a week in hospital, with lots of tests being done on him, so lots of needles being pushed into his paws at various times of the day by kind vets and nurses who were only trying to help him get better.
When he came back from hospital, I noticed that he wasn’t the same dog as he was before. Max was now struggling with trauma, something he had never encountered before in his almost-perfect doggy life.
Trauma (from the Greek word for wound) is now mainly used psychologically in our culture, although we do still talk about a body being traumatised after a bad accident. Simply put: any time in our lives where we feel that we don’t have the capacities to deal with a situation that is scary or painful to us, we experience trauma. We know we are experiencing trauma when we exit our day-to-day loving, caring, bonding personalities and are thrown instead into our default Stress-response Selves: some combo of fight, flight, or freeze.
Pretty much anything can trigger a traumatic reaction. For Max, it is a certain careful, probling touch anywhere near his belly, or legs, a certain kind of careful/hesitant approach (the way someone might gingerly approach you if they were just about to sink a needle into a delicate part of your body) and equally a quiet, softly-spoken voice saying his name as if attempting to calm him down before delivering some pain to his extremities. Understandably, even if those words are coming from someone he loves, Max now goes into an aggressive (Fight) stress response.
If any of trauma triggers are present, Max will get antsy, start growling: his warning that he is about to have a traumatic response to something that is really no “biggie” in the grand scheme of things. Just like most of the stuff we get reactive to is really no “biggie” in the grand scheme of things (think about the last time you “lost it” in some stressy way: was it really the end of the world?). And finally, if the traumatic stimulus doesn’t back away, he will attack.
We, as human animals, are no different to Max. We all carry some sort of trauma within us, either the trauma of just being thrown into consciousness and survival in environments that are not always hospitable to our human animal requirements, physically or emotionally. Or maybe we’re just unlucky, as most of us are in some way, in the events of our lives.
We may have a tragic, life-changing accident, or someone close to us may be hurt in this way, or maybe it’s just another human animal, interacting with us, trying to do their best, that causes us overwhelming pain. Our minds being learning machines (stay away from the “bad stuff”, get as much as possible of the “good stuff”) will embed this trauma into our neural circuits, and hey presto, we suddenly find ourselves hurt and upset (Fight), blaming, angry, or shut-down/avoidant (Flight), or just frozen, unable to respond in any reasonable way to the life challenges we are facing.
And this can happen at any time: in a WhatsApp text argument with your partner on a rainy Thursday morning, in certain social situations (even some really friendly and potentially nice ones), or when your loving Dog Dad is unfastening your harness after a glorious walk in the park with many a wonderful glow-in-the-dark ball being thrown.
Because Freud and subsequent psychotherapists have yoked trauma so thoroughly with insufficient or mis-attuned parenting, or with more extreme forms of abuse such as physical or sexual abuse, we often associate the word with these more dramatic sources.
But trauma is also as humdrum as going to the doctor or a vet and finding yourself poked with a painful needle without sufficient preparation or the chance afterwards to recover fully. Trauma is that feeling of the rug being pulled out from under your feet, even if nobody around you would necessarily recognise or understand the triggers that suddenly throw you into your habitual stress response.
My habitual stress response is a form of “fight”.
As I am quite a communicative person on the whole, following an upset or some kind of trauma-trigger, I can become an “ultra-communicative” (aka Pain-In-The-Arse) kind of person.
Clients never get to see this part of me, but in my personal life when feeling upset I will sometimes bombard another person (my partner, family members) with multiple attempts to re-engage or engage, often with cutting little asides in my mind’s fighty “analysis” of what is going on between us. This usually happens on the heels of some kind of disagreement or argument. It is not the most enjoyable form of communication to receive. Too much, and often clunky or overbearing in its sentiments.
This “difficult” or over-communicative behaviour (the human version of growling?) has sometimes worked for me (especially as a man, men can sometimes get away with this kind of behaviour), but mostly it doesn’t.
I have learnt to modulate it over the years (my Fighting Part is never abusive or cruel, even though it can be quite sharp-tongued) but I completely understand that this is not the best way to deal with arguments. In fact, it’s one of the worst ways.
Does this mean we can just cut this responses out of our lives wholesale? Unfortunately not. Stress responses are by and large automatic, instinctive. They have to be that way to protect us, even if the thing they are protecting us from, is often not a real threat to our well-being, usually not in the slightest.
Trauma responses are not in any way cognitive, which is why when talking about them afterwards in our own minds, or with someone else like a therapist, we often feel ashamed by our behaviour: we don’t recognise our kind, and somewhat well-balanced Selves, in these Fighty-Flighty manifestations.
Ideally trauma requires, at least interpersonally, someone to work with us when we are having an emotional or physical flare-up, and not meet our flare-ups with one of their own. Couples often need to do this for each other. When one person is having a flare-up, the other needs to find a way to adapt and work around or with it.
Stress responses can be physical as much as anything else; emotions are embodied expressions of pain; words being just a way to signal to another that we are in pain, even if those words sound like they contain within them a perceived threat of some kind.
My partner’s habitual stress response is a form of “flight”. They will disappear for days if they feel slighted, and will perceive every attempt I make to engage with them as an attack. In their unwillingness to talk or fight back, I experience their silence as withholding and unloving (another kind of threat), and they experience my barbed comments as knives and daggers rather than an attempt to reconnect.
And so before long, some kind of painful bite might occur on either side.
A lot of couples, as well as families, experience these kinds of dynamics, and unfortunately, this is where trauma takes its greatest toll. It destroys relationships. It pushes people away who might not understand our trauma-led responses, people who might not have the time, the inclination, or interest in helping us to be the best, least stressy version of ourselves that we can be.
But trauma also impinges on our relationship to ourselves and the world. Either as a physical manifestation (non-medical aches and pains, and/or lots of emotional pain that we find difficult to assimilate and make space for). Also a great deal of mental pain: all the various thought loops that torment our minds like earworms when we are having a traumatic stress-response.
The good news is that where there is love (loving and accepting our flawed human-animal selves, and the flawed human-animals we know and interact with) as well as some kind of “wisdom”, there can be freedom, peace, and connection, even in our trauma-assailed bodies and minds.
Max is not traumatised all the time. Nor am I. And nor are you, no matter how traumatised you experience yourself to be.
Sometimes the trauma-rug-pull occurs daily, but for the most part, it might be a weekly or monthly occurrence.
Now that I have an understanding of Max’s trauma, how it happened, and what we can do to find workarounds, we continue to have a loving relationship.
I am able to make space for his perceptions of threat even when there aren’t any there (for example heeding his initial growls, and not pushing him past his comfort zone); as well as encouraging him with patience and support to do the things I need him to do (teeth brushing, grooming etc.).
And most importantly not expecting him at this moment to act in relation to me like a non-traumatized creature. If there is a trauma trigger around, he will act as if in trauma, as if he is just about to be deeply deeply wounded, even though I might only be wanting to wash the mud off his paws.
Of course I am using all the right psychological interventions with him as well: trying to dial down his traumatic response so that he doesn’t flip into Fight Mode every time I take off his harness.
But I don’t expect him to be the Max he was before his terrible trauma. He is the Max of Now, and fundamentally, I accept this Max. I accept where Max is Now, and we work with, around, and through his traumatic responses with love, patience and kindness.
I also make sure to protect myself (putting a muzzle on him when I have to bathe his paws, whilst all the time talking to him with love and appreciation) so that I don’t get flipped into a trauma-response or stress-response myself following on from his blameless aggression.
And it is blameless if coming from a flight-fight place. We do not wake up in the morning and decide to say or do something nasty to the people or creatures we care for the most. Or to live the day, ourselves, tormented. We do not wake up and decide that if somebody says something we don’t like, we will run away and not engage in conversation with them in order to sort out our differences.
I think this is also the best way to work with our human trauma. Some of this might require us to go back into the past and do some visualisation work (Schema Therapy), or some EMDR work with the sources of our trauma – this can be helpful. These kinds of interventions which also include creative and often quite stimulating ways into (and out) of our traumas, as well as calming/anchoring/grounding tools, can help us come to terms with our past and our futures selves, and with the painful narratives that have formed around them in our minds.
But let’s also work together (if need be) to find a way to keep us safe-for-ourselves when we are triggered by an event or another person, as well as safe for others.
If you are in a relationship (but this might also be true for friends and family) you will ideally need a partner who is willing to work with your stress responses, your traumas, be they emotional or physical, setting boundaries, but ideally not punishing you every time you flip out.
But there is also a lot of good and satisfying work, if you are willing to go there, that can be done for yourself in order to understand, get to know better your triggers and responses, and eventually to learn how to live with your traumas as they continue to arise in your life and your interactions on a daily basis.
As traumatized creatures we might find ourselves lying on our backs, the rug once more pulled out from under our feet, wondering (often with huge amounts of shame and self-criticism) how we got here again?
“Why did we “fuck up” again in this way?!” we might rail against ourselves or others.
Why does life, other people, certain situations suddenly seem so dreadfully unbearable to us?
Trauma, and traumatic responses (fight, flight, freeze) are never able to be eradicated entirely. It is incredibly important that Max does growl (a “Fight” Stress Response) before he bites. When Max growls, what he is really saying is: “I’m scared, please treat me kindly.”
I am learning that when my partner goes into Flight Mode, they are saying this too, and that they will bite me quite severely if I don’t honour their wishes in some way, even though these wishes are starkly in contrast with my own at that moment.
There are always kind, and non-painful workarounds to try out with our traumatic responses and those of others. We just need the patience, energy and goodwill to give them a go. And then give them another go, and another go, and another go.
Max’s trauma was created in a week, but I know that it will take months of rehabilitation work, maybe even years to regain some of his 24/7 good cheer and equanimity. Max has now joined us human animals: in that he now moves through life at times, as a triggered and traumatised creature.
Similarly, we may need to work on lots of different strategies to help ourselves cope when trauma triggers your emotional-physical stress responses: to build up our self-acceptance, as well as some kind of acceptance (which is not to say a free-for-all) of those who are in contact with us, so that you too can make space for your own less-than-perfect stress responses, as well as theirs.
This takes quite a lot of work, and practice, and it needs to be done consistently, especially with a partner or family member who gets hurt by our stress response. But most of all, it needs to be done, over and over and over again by ourselves. Every time we get triggered. Especially when we get triggered by smallish stuff, before our default (BIG) “mindless” stress responses kick in.
We don’t live in an ideal world, and so it is not always possible to ask somebody else to make allowances for our growls, our bites, our hiding away under the bed for days. We need to do this work on ourselves and in conjunction with others; and in some way, this is the work of our lives which commences with a trauma (birth) and ends with a number of painful experiences (sickness, old age, the loss of those we care about, our own demise).
Trauma is often associated with therapy for a good reason, for it is here that you should find a person (me, your therapist) who is always willing to do that work with you. And with my encouragement and your practice, the next time you feel overwhelmed (or maybe in a hundred times from now: practice makes perfect remember, do not expect yourself to achieve this stress-response modulation instantaneously, these are powerful instinctive forces you’re playing around with), you might end up growling, you might even snarl, but you won’t bite anyone, or hurt yourself either.
I know that this practice I can offer you with your triggers and stress responses is not a perfect solution, but life, as you may have realised by now, does not cohere to the idealised expectations we have of ourselves and others. Like Max, we are all creatures of circumstance. We are all just trying to do our best with the sometimes traumatic hand dealt to us.
Please feel free to get in touch either by email or telephone (07804197605) if you would like to find out anything else about EMDR or other trauma treatments, or to book a consultation.