All of Us Store Trauma In Our Bodies. Best-Selling Author and Trauma Expert Dr. Gabor Maté Shares How to Start Healing Today
Picture this: At the tender age of seventy-one, six years before this writing, I arrive back in Vancouver from a speaking jaunt to Philadelphia. The talk was successful, the audience enthusiastic, my message about addiction and trauma’s impact on people’s lives warmly received.
Descending over Vancouver’s pristine sea-to-sky panorama, I am a regular Little Jack Horner in my corner of the plane, suffused with a “what a good boy am I” glow. As we touch down and begin to taxi to the gate, the text from my wife, Rae, lights up the tiny screen: “Sorry. I haven’t left home yet. Do you still want me to come?” I stiffen, satisfaction displaced by rage. “Never mind,” I dictate tersely into the phone. Embittered, I disembark, clear customs, and take a taxi home, all of a twenty-minute ride door-to-door. Seeing Rae, I growl a hello that is more accusation than greeting, and scarcely look at her. In fact, I barely make eye contact for the next twenty-four hours. When addressed, I utter little more than brief, monotone grunts. My head is averted, the upper part of my face is tense and rigid, and my jaw is in a perma-clench.
What is happening with me? Is this the response of a mature adult in his eighth decade? Only superficially. At times like this, there is very little grown-up Gabor in the mix. Most of me is in the grips of the distant past, near the beginnings of my life. This kind of physio-emotional time warp, preventing me from inhabiting the present moment, is one of the imprints of trauma, an underlying theme for many people in this culture. In fact, it is so deeply “underlying” that many of us don’t know it’s there.
The meaning of the word “trauma,” in its Greek origin, is “wound.” Whether we realize it or not, it is our woundedness, or how we cope with it, that dictates much of our behavior, shapes our social habits, and informs our ways of thinking about the world. It can even determine whether we are capable of rational thought at all in matters of the greatest importance to our lives. For many of us, it rears its head in our closest partnerships, causing all kinds of relational mischief.
It was in 1889 that the pioneering French psychologist Pierre Janet first depicted traumatic memory as being held in “automatic actions and reactions, sensations and attitudes . . . replayed and reenacted in visceral sensations.”1 In the present century, the leading trauma psychologist and healer Peter Levine has written that certain shocks to the organism “can alter a person’s biological, psychological, and social equilibrium to such a degree that the memory of one particular event comes to taint, and dominate, all other experiences, spoiling an appreciation of the present moment.” Levine calls this “the tyranny of the past.”
In my case, the template for my hostility to Rae’s message is to be found in the diary my mother kept, in a nearly illegible scrawl and only intermittently, during my first years in wartime and post–World War II Budapest. The following, translated by me from the Hungarian, is her entry on April 8, 1945, when I was fourteen months old:
My dear little man, only after many long months do I take in hand again the pen, so that I may briefly sketch for you the unspeakable horrors of those times, the details of which I do not wish you to know . . . It was on December 12 that the Crossed-Arrows† forced us into the fenced-in Budapest ghetto, from which, with extreme difficulty, we found refuge in a Swiss-protected house. From there, after two days, I sent you by a complete stranger to your Aunt Viola’s because I saw that your little organism could not possibly endure the living conditions in that building. Now began the most dreadful five or six weeks of my life, when I couldn’t see you.
I survived, thanks to the kindness and courage of the unknown Christian woman to whom my mother entrusted me in the street and who conveyed me to relatives living in hiding, under relatively safer circumstances. Reunited with my mother after the Soviet army had put the Germans to flight, I did not so much as look at her for several days.
The great twentieth-century British psychiatrist and psychologist John Bowlby was familiar with such behavior: he called it detachment. At his clinic he observed ten small children who had to endure prolonged separation from their parents due to uncontrollable circumstances. “On meeting mother for the first time after days or weeks away every one of the children showed some degree of detachment,” Bowlby observed. “Two seemed not to recognize their mother. The other eight turned away or even walked away from her. Most of them either cried or came close to tears; a number alternated between a tearful and expressionless face.”
It may seem counterintuitive, but this reflexive rejection of the loving mother is an adaptation: “I was so hurt when you abandoned me,” says the young child’s mind, “that I will not reconnect with you. I don’t dare open myself to that pain again.” In many children—and I was certainly one—early reactions like these become embedded in the nervous system, mind, and body, playing havoc with future relationships. They show up throughout the lifetime in response to any incident even vaguely resembling the original imprint—often without any recall of the inciting circumstances. My petulant and defensive reaction to Rae signaled that old, deep-brain emotional circuits, programmed in infancy, had taken over while the rational, calming, self-regulating parts of my brain went offline.
“All trauma is preverbal,” the psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk has written.4 His statement is true in two senses. First, the psychic wounds we sustain are often inflicted upon us before our brain is capable of formulating any kind of a verbal narrative, as in my case. Second, even after we become language-endowed, some wounds are imprinted on regions of our nervous systems having nothing to do with language or concepts; this includes brain areas, of course, but the rest of the body, too. They are stored in parts of us that words and thoughts cannot directly access—we might even call this level of traumatic encoding “subverbal.” As Peter Levine explains, “Conscious, explicit memory is only the proverbial tip of a very deep and mighty iceberg. It barely hints at the submerged strata of primal implicit experience that moves us in ways the conscious mind can only begin to imagine.”
To her credit, my wife will not allow me to get away with pinning the entire blame for my arrivals-gate hissy fit on Nazis and fascists and infant trauma. Yes, the backstory merits compassion and understanding—and she has given me an abundance of both—but there comes a point when “Hitler made me do it” won’t fly. Responsibility can and must be taken. After twenty- four hours of the silent treatment, Rae had had enough. “Oh, knock it off already,” she said. And so I did—a measure of progress and relative maturation on my part. In times past, it would have taken me days or longer to “knock it off”: for me to drop my resentment, and for my core to unfreeze, my face to relax, my voice to soften, and my head to turn willingly and with love toward my life partner.
“My problem is that I am married to someone who understands me,” I have often grumbled, only partly in jest. Really, of course, my great blessing is to be married to someone with healthy boundaries, who sees me as I am now and who will no longer bear the brunt of my prolonged and unplanned visits to the distant past.
What Trauma Is and What It Does
Trauma’s imprint is more endemic than we realize. That may seem a puzzling statement, as “trauma” has become something of a catchword in our society. To boot, the word has taken on colloquial valances that confuse and dilute its meaning. A clear and comprehensive reckoning is warranted, especially in the field of health—and, since everything is connected, in virtually all other societal domains as well.
The usual conception of trauma conjures up notions of catastrophic events: hurricanes, abuse, egregious neglect, and war. This has the unintended and misleading effect of relegating trauma to the realm of the abnormal, the unusual, the exceptional. If there exists a class of people we call “traumatized,” that must mean that most of us are not.
Here we miss the mark by a wide margin. Trauma pervades our culture, from personal functioning through social relationships, parenting, education, popular culture, economics, and politics. In fact, someone without the marks of trauma would be an outlier in our society. We are closer to the truth when we ask: Where do we each fit on the broad and surprisingly inclusive trauma spectrum? Which of its many marks has each of us carried all (or most) of our lives, and what have the impacts been? And what possibilities would open up were we to become more familiar, even intimate, with them?
A more basic question comes first: What is trauma? As I use the word, “trauma” is an inner injury, a lasting rupture or split within the self due to difficult or hurtful events. By this definition, trauma is primarily what happens within someone as a result of the difficult or hurtful events that befall them; it is not the events themselves. “Trauma is not what happens to you but what happens inside you,” is how I formulate it. Think of a car accident where someone sustains a concussion: the accident is what happened; the injury is what lasts. Likewise, trauma is a psychic injury, lodged in our nervous system, mind, and body, lasting long past the originating incident(s), triggerable at any moment. It is a constellation of hardships, composed of the wound itself and the residual burdens that our woundedness imposes on our bodies and souls: the unresolved emotions they visit upon us; the coping dynamics they dictate; the tragic or melodramatic or neurotic scripts we unwittingly but inexorably live out; and, not least, the toll these take on our bodies.
A Path toward Healing
The Four As
No one can plot somebody else’s course of healing because that’s not how healing works. There are no road maps for something that must find its own individual arc. We can, however, sketch out the territory, describe it, familiarize ourselves with it, and prepare to meet its challenges. We can learn what natural laws seem to govern healing, specifically what attitudes and attributes it both awakens and responds to in us. Like natural childbirth, healing cannot be mandated or hastened, but it can certainly be helped along.
The following four As are not how-to steps or rigid injunctions. They represent healing principles that have proved useful guideposts for many people.
The pursuit of authenticity is rife with pitfalls. For starters, we have the paradox that authenticity can’t be pursued, only embodied. By definition, striving for some idealized self-image is incompatible with being authentically who one is. We have to begin with accepting ourselves fully, as Anita Moorjani discovered in her encounter with a fatal illness. “Even the slightest little resistance from the opposite person . . . like if I had displeased someone even slightly—this was me before—I would be the one to back down,” she told me. “Today who I am, I’m not afraid of being disliked, of disappointing someone. I’m not afraid of what I used to think of as my negative qualities. I realized that they are just the other side of being who I am.”
One of the most direct approaches to authenticity is noticing when it isn’t there, then applying some curiosity and gentle skepticism to the limiting self-beliefs that stand in for it, or just stand in its way.
The growing capacity to admit to oneself “Ouch, that hurts,” or “You know, I didn’t really mean what I just said,” or “I’m really scared to be myself in this situation” is the impulse toward authenticity becoming stronger. After enough noticing, actual opportunities for choice begin to appear before we betray our true wants and needs.
Whereas earlier, such awareness would have been clocked only after the fact, we might now find ourselves able to pause in the moment and say, “Hmm, I can tell I’m about to stuff down this feeling or thought—is that what I want to do? Is there another option?” The emergence of new choices in place of old, preprogrammed dynamics is a sure sign of our authentic selves coming back online.
Anger in its natural, healthy form is a boundary defense, a dynamic activated when we perceive a threat to our lives or our physical or emotional integrity. Our brains being wired for it, we can hardly avoid it: this is the self-protective RAGE system identified by Jaak Panksepp. Its full functioning is a standard feature of our wholeness, essential for survival.
Healthy anger is a response of the moment, not a beast we keep in the basement, feeding it with shame or self-justifying narratives. It is situational, its duration limited: flashing up when needed, it accomplishes its task of fending off the threat and then subsides. It becomes neither an experience to fear and loathe nor a chronic irritant.
The fact—and some people may need to actively remind themselves of this—is that we are talking about a valid, natural feeling that does not in itself intend anyone any harm.
Anger in its pure form has no moral content, right or wrong—it just is, its only “de- sire” a noble one: to maintain integrity and equilibrium. If and when it does morph into a toxic version of itself, we can address the unhelpful stories and interpretations, the self-righteous or self-flagellating thought patterns that keep stoking it, without invalidating the emotion. We can also observe how our inability to say no fuels chronic resentment that leaves us prone to harmful combustions.
Many of us have learned to minimize our anger to the point that we don’t even know what it looks like. Like authenticity, genuine anger is not a performance. Anger’s core message is a concise and potent no, said as forcefully as the moment demands.
Wherever we find ourselves tolerating or explaining away situations that persistently stress us, insisting that “it’s not so bad” or “I can handle it” or “I don’t want to make a fuss about it,” there is likely an opportunity to practice giving anger some space to emerge. Even the plainspoken admission that “I don’t like this'' or “I don’t want this” can be a step forward.
The question for most of us is not whether to be angry, but how to relate in a wholesome way to the feelings that naturally ebb and flow with life’s tide, anger included.
Acceptance begins with allowing things to be as they are, however they are. It has nothing to do with complacency or resignation, though sometimes these can pose as acceptance—think of the shrugging expression “it is what it is”—just as stubborn egotism can moonlight as authenticity. Rather, acceptance is the recognition, ever accurate, that in this moment things cannot be other than how they are. We abstain from rejecting or condoning. Instead of resisting the truth or denying or fantasizing our way out of it, we endeavor to just be with it. In doing so, we foster an aligned relationship with the actual, present moment.
Acceptance also means accepting how downright difficult it can be to accept. It may seem paradoxical, but true acceptance denies or excludes no aspect of how it is, not even our impulse to reject how it is. Anger, sadness, trepidation, resistance, even hatred—within an accepting attitude, these all have room to say their piece. Sometimes accepting ourselves starts with facing that we don’t know how we feel, or that our feelings are mixed. Rejection of any part of our experience is an unnatural self-rejection, one that nonetheless feels normal to many of us. You’ve made some serious mistakes?
You find yourself filled with hatred, resentment, or confusion? These, too, are candidates for acceptance; underneath them there is always pain. In fact, hatred, resentment, and even confusion can be the psyche’s attempts not to feel pain or sadness.
Healthy grief—the jewel so often hidden within ossified grievance—frequently waits on the other side of accepting how things are and have been. That, too, can be hard to embrace, but when we forestall the energy of mourning that wants to move through us, we only cause it to build up. As Gordon Neufeld puts it, “We shall be saved in an ocean of tears.”
A distinction must be made between accepting and tolerating. Being with something and putting up with something have precious little to do with each other. Acceptance is vitalizing because it makes room for the other three As—it grants admission to anger if such is present, increases our sense of free agency, and makes room for whatever our authentic experience might be. Tolerating the intolerable, on the other hand, is deadening.
For example, resigning oneself bleakly to conditions such as abuse or neglect involves rejecting crucial parts of one’s self, needs, and values that deserve to be respected and integrity that needs to be safeguarded. That is far from true acceptance.
To accept that whatever is currently happening is happening— the simple fact of the matter—does not mean conceding that it should happen. To deal with racism, poverty, or any other societal ill, we must first recognize that they are realities of life in this culture.
They exist, and we must acknowledge our pain and grief that they do. Now we can ask ourselves how we might effectively work to eliminate not only their expressions but their root causes. We can move on to healthy anger, to agency, to autonomy in action.
Excerpted from The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture by Dr. Gabor Maté with Daniel Maté. Copyright © 2022 by Dr. Gabor Maté. Excerpted with permission of Avery Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher. Order The Myth of Normal here.
Celebrated speaker and bestselling author Dr. Gabor Maté is sought after for his expertise on a range of topics including addiction, stress, and childhood development. Dr. Maté has written several bestselling books, including the award-winning In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction; When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress; and Scattered Minds: The Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder. Learn more at drgabormate.com.