We all undergo trauma in one form or the other in our life. No human can ever say that he/she has never undergone trauma in life. This is as bad as saying I have never fallen ill. Let us first understand what trauma is. Our world is characterized by the schisms of social numbness and mental breakdown. Trauma derives its meaning from Greek, which means wound/physical injury. Trauma is not that which encompasses death directly, but that which forces the subjects to somehow confront death-like situations.
Our life witnesses shocking events like murder, rapes, assaults, humiliations, tortures, robberies, etc., which are the result of deliberate attempts. With these events, we become more aware of our vulnerability. Our view on life changes, our values and priorities change, the values of family and interpersonal relationships change, perception of the entire human society.
Trauma can be referred to as an overwhelming experience and calamity that brings out a rupture so violently that dissociates a person or community at both social and personal levels. It disrupts a sense of continuity in our lives and dissipates our concepts and ideas which are fundamental to our very existence. It breaks apart the entire conceptual defence and support systems which help us manage and transform a myriad of random experiences into what we perceive as reality.
Trauma as defined by J. Laplanche and J.B Pontalis refers to an event in the subject’s life defined by its intensity by the subject’s incapacity to respond adequately to it and by the upheaval and long-lasting effects that it brings about in the psychical organization (465). The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term trauma as originating from a medical term used to refer to a wound or an external bodily injury, psychic injury, especially one caused by emotional shock, the memory of which is repressed and remains unhealed or the state of condition so caused. Freud termed it as a “breach in the protective shield” (292).
Sigmund Freud has introduced the concept of trauma to Psychology. He elaborated on the concept of trauma (injury, wound) to the phenomena of mind. According to him, trauma is defined as “a powerful event in a person’s life to which the individual is unable to respond appropriately and which has a powerful sudden and enduring effect on him. Trauma is characterized by a flood of extremely strong stimuli that exceeds the individual’s tolerance threshold, his ability to control his feeling of agitation and to process it.” (Saari 14) The concept when adapted to psychoanalysis carried three features central to it that include the idea of violence, the idea of an injury, the whole organism.
According to Freud, psychological trauma is an experience, where, in a short span of time, the mind is forced to receive a great number of stimuli that are too powerful to be processed by the brain in the usual way, resulting in either the system incorporating it as a foreign body or not even complete but in traces. The Brain usually allows penetration of those stimuli that the mind is capable of tolerating. If the threshold is exceeded, it results in trauma. Then the function of the protective system is to reach a state of equilibrium by every possible means by reducing the state of stimulation and thus achieve the state favoured by the pleasure principle.
Freud, in his essays like “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death” (1915), “On Transience” (1915), “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), “The Uncanny”(1919), and “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (1920) had expressed his views on the different psychic states and trauma which ceaselessly return to the precise traumatic moment through flashbacks, nightmares, dreams, etc. For Freud, trauma is characterized by the failure of memory and a victim’s compulsion to repeat the traumatic event.
Several psychologists after Freud like Anne Whitehead, Cathy Caruth, Carl Jung, Herman, Ann Kaplan, Kai Erikson, Susan Najita and others have elaborately developed and expounded various theories on trauma. All these theories have thrown light on the victim’s consequences and experiences, besides widened the scope and study of trauma.
Today’s academic, artistic, journalistic, psychiatric, psychoanalytic, and cultural discourses are increasingly engaged in the analysis of traumata; this has, in turn, privileged trauma as a route through which one can examine cultural issues of experience, memory, the body and representation, especially in the fields of history, literature, and culture studies.
We undoubtedly live in an age of trauma and testimony. The bombarding news of war and genocide, mass exodus, pride killing, rape, and domestic violence in our own country and also in other parts of the world and the abiding presence of the terrorist threats within the borders of our own country have become a part of people’s daily lives as they find themselves just a few sound bites away from the sites of violence when they watch the evening news. This has in turn plunged the threshold of the people’s general sense of safety and security. It is no longer possible to envision a world immune from the pain of others and the immediacy from the danger that can haunt one’s life without a warning.
Traumatization involves very painful experiences which are so difficult to cope with, which often result in psychological dysfunction, for those who are involved; the effects of which are felt psychically, emotionally, spiritually and cognitively. Today, the world is witnessing rampant war and the refugee crisis, which leads to uprooting wherein people are forced to leave everything familiar including one’s language, culture, and position in society, job, relatives, and social network and start a new life in a completely different environment.
The word samskara comes from the Sanskrit sam (complete or joined together) and kara (action, cause, or doing). Samskaras (Sanskrit: संस्कार) are mental impressions, recollections, or psychological imprints. Samskaras are individual impressions, ideas, or actions; taken together, our samskaras make up our conditioning. Samskaras are a basis for the development of karma theory. In Buddhism, the Sanskrit term samskara is used to describe ‘formations’. Vasana is the seed of desire that arises from past tendencies. Translated into action, it becomes karma which in turn forms fresh samskaras. Samsakaras, vasanas and karma are interlinked. One cannot be separated from the other. Samskara is the plant that grows when the seed of vasana sprouts into karma. The impression of anything in the mind or the present consciousness is formed from past perceptions. Knowledge thus derived from memory and the impressions remaining in the mind from the basis of samskaras. Thinking of, longing for, expectation, desire, and inclination are all part of these samskaras. Repeating samskaras reinforces them, creating a groove that is difficult to resist. According to yogic philosophy, we’re born with a karmic inheritance of mental and emotional patterns—known as samskaras—through which we cycle over and over again during our lives. Samskaras can be positive, as we see in any selfless service rendered in society, or can also be negative, as in the self-lacerating mental patterns that underlie low self-esteem and self-destructive relationships in the case of trauma. The negative samskaras are what hinder our positive evolution. The trauma victims suffer from these samskaras, the memory of strong impressions formed about the ghastly events and experiences. The breaking point here is samskaras. Once this happens, the victims are freed from the guilt and other negative emotions and tendencies. The samskaras thus formed in subconsciousness are so strong that the trauma victims undergo severe pain, psychological and spiritual, leading to mental disorders.
Victims of trauma often show various symptoms and reactions. The most common response to traumatic events is survival. Violent trauma triggers emotions of “fight or flight” which puts the body in a hyper-aroused state. When this happens, the person will either run away or fight to survive. If this is not possible, a person may freeze and will not be able to think, talk or move. Immediately following the trauma, which is single or multiple events, the survivor experiences many physical, cognitive, and emotional responses and symptoms which may remain active until worked through.
Physical reactions include headaches, stomach pain, disturbed sleep patterns, and are easily startled by noise or touch, have breathing difficulties, sweats shakes, and trembles. Cognitive reactions include preoccupation with trauma, confusion, decreased self-esteem, loss of purpose or meaning in life, difficulty in concentrating, fear of the future, and flashbacks. The effects manifest physically as migraines, nervous tics, clenched muscles in the neck, shoulders, and jaw, a sunken chest, or a heavy heart. They can exact an even heavier toll in the form of heart disease, diabetes, panic attacks, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder – neurodevelopmental disorder) in children, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and a host of autoimmune disorders. Behavioural reactions include shock and disbelief, fear and anxiety, grief and denial, hyper-alertness, irritability, and anger outburst, feeling of helplessness, panic and feeling out of control and often attempts to avoid triggers of trauma. Difficulty in trusting, feeling betrayed, unable to relax, feeling guilty, hopeless, appetite changes, self-harming, and being suicidal along with detachment and numbing constitute emotional reactions.
A traumatic event breaks up and creates a fissure in the basic human relationship and attachments of family, friendship, love, and community, undermining the belief systems and the idea of self which gives meaning to life. Trauma not only affects oneself psychologically but also dismantles the attachment systems that link oneself to others and the community.
Victims lose faith in the natural or the divine, leaving them in a state of existential crisis. One acquires a sense of safety and trust during one’s childhood years at the hands of their first caretaker (father/mother). This sense of safety and trust is sustained throughout the life cycle. In a traumatic situation, people call for their first caretaker, usually, their mother, who is their source of comfort and protection. A sense of trust is lost when they fail to find a secure base. They feel abandoned, lonely, and cast out of the human system of safety and care, which results in a sense of disconnection even within the most intimate familial bonds. They feel utterly lost and almost deader than the living, which eventually tempts them to commit suicide.
In case of a traumatic event, a person loses his sense of self, and conflicts within him of childhood and adolescence re-emerges. The victim re-lives all his initial struggles. A positive sense of self is crucial in outliving one’s trauma. Feeling valued and respected cultivates self-esteem and a sense of autonomy resulting from one’s own separateness, which helps one regulate one’s own bodily function and points of view.
Developmental conflicts in oneself lead to the development of shame and doubt, guilt and inferiority. Traumatic events thwart a person’s initiative and overwhelm individual competence. Feelings of guilt, inferiority, helplessness, etc. Are severe when one is a witness to the suffering or death of others and are haunted by the images of the dying whom they could not help.
Social support systems in the form of a positive and supportive response from society and the dear ones may help reduce the impact of the event. This alone is not enough. However, in the context of rapid urbanization resulting in fast-changing lifestyles, expecting such social supportive response is a far-reaching reality. Whereas a negative response may aggravate the trauma and become vulnerable.
Western medicines will do more damage to the system than bring in vital changes in the victim’s body and mind. Yoga can make a big difference in trauma victims. Yoga touches on every level of victim, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. It makes a powerful and effective means for trauma victims to calm their minds, experience emotions directly, and begin to feel a sense of strength and control. Trauma’s effects live not only in the body but also in the mind. Various body-based and mind-based therapies cannot undo the effects of what happened—the terror, rage, helplessness, and depression that manifest in the body. It’s not even erasing the event itself from the victim’s psyche that is important. Instead, it’s the samskaras (the residue imprints) that get rooted in sensory and hormonal systems that need to be addressed with sympathy, love, and understanding.
Asanas can reduce disorders in the victim’s body. Moving from one asana to another, slowly, deliberately and concentrated, bring in vast changes. The simplest of poses (standing or sitting) can produce profound results. Just feeling his feet on the ground for the very first time in Tadasana (standing palm tree position) and Vrikshasana (standing tree position) can give the victim a sense of balance, stability, and safety. Doing gently supported backbend and forward bend Asanas such as Parvatasana (Intertwining the fingers of both hands to form a finger lock in Padmasana or Vajrasana), Yoga Mudra (touching the floor with forehead in Vajrasana or Padmasana by pressing the bowels below the navel with twisted fists), Sastanga Namaskaraasana (lowering the body so that the body is parallel to the ground with the two feet, the two knees, the two palms, the chest and the chin touching the floor, the hip and abdomen are slightly raised up), Supta Vajrasana (bending the body back in Vajrasana with elbows touching the floor and the top of the head resting on the floor), Marjarya asana (inhaling and exhaling in cat position) will increase blood flow which is vital for rectifying imbalances. Building a strong, capable body goes a long way toward developing a strong, centred mind. Similarly, Asanas can induce similar chemical changes in the brain.
A round of simple Pranayama, deep breathing called Nadisodhana Pranayama (inhaling through the left nostril and releasing through the right nostril while closing the former and alternatively) might tone up feelings, reduce cortisol, a stress hormone that triggers depression, and increases oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone” and improve social interaction. Pranayama can have an energizing or calming effect on the nervous system and quiet the brain. Simple breathing can keep the victim in the body. The overwhelming emotions have to be tackled. The impact of Asanas and Pranayama of negative symptoms is much stronger than other forms of exercise such as calisthenics, walking, jogging, running, gymnastics, etc. These Asanas and Pranayama should be practiced with mindfulness. Then one can see the real impact. With all Yoga practices, the victim may be encouraged to stay with the sensation for as long as s/he chooses. Yoga can mitigate the horrific responses of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Mere intellectual insight may not work on the victims, it does not travel beyond the mind, and it seldom translates into change. Because the body houses emotional intelligence in the victims, it might not assimilate the insight. Yoga comprising asanas and pranayama acts through the medium of the body, taking vidya to even deeper levels. Through yoga, we integrate and experience physically and emotionally what we intellectually know to be true.
Meditation can also help trauma victims to bring their nervous systems back into balance. Mantra meditation and Yoga Nidra and yoga mudra provide two alternatives to following one’s thoughts in silence. Using a mantra (chanting Om) gives the mind a calm state and prepares the victim for the journey inward, something to return to as memories and sensations surface and dissolve. Yoga Nidra helps the victim stay present to what’s going on—feeling the energy of the body and exploring sensations without judgment or attachment. Shavasana, if done properly under the guidance of a master, gives total relaxation to the body as well as to the mind. Yoga provides a powerful ally on the journey home and allows the victim to create a loving and nurturing relationship with his/her body.
All patterns, even samskaras, represent order. When we leave an old pattern behind, we enter a liminal space—a bardo, to borrow a Tibetan term. As the space between an exhalation and the next inhalation, this place is ripe with unlimited possibilities for new choices. This in-between space can be unsettling. We often resist new patterns for fear of losing the identities we’ve so carefully constructed. And it’s true that when we change a long-held pattern, we undergo a rebirth of sorts. This rebirth hints at a new incarnation, a more evolved version of the self. Yet improving our samskara brings us closer to our true nature, which is the goal of yoga. Like alchemists in our own transformation, we constantly refine and direct our samskara into healthier designs.
Freud, Sigmond. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”. Complete Psychological Works of
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Smith. New York: W. W. Norton, 1973.
Saari, S. A Bolt from the Blue: Coping with Disasters and Acute Traumas. A.Silver, Trans. London, England: Jessica Kingsley Pulishers, 2005.
About the author
Poet, short story writer, novelist, critic, book reviewer, an independent scholar, and a yoga sadhaka, KVRaghupathi has published thirty books numerous articles and a recepient of several awards for his creativity. A former academic, now settled in Tirupati devoting his full time to writings and yoga sadhana. He can be reached at email@example.com.