Ep. 146: The Difference Between Trauma and Suffering

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Trauma is a word that we hear a lot, and some people might wonder, “It seems like everyone has trauma… so if everyone has it, is it even really a thing?”

I’ve even wondered about the difference between trauma and the suffering that Buddha spoke of in the 4 Noble Truths. Is it qualitatively different, or is it just on the continuum of suffering that is part of being human?

In Buddhism, suffering is discussed as a truth to embrace as a truth of being human, as part of the human experience. If we believe that suffering isn’t supposed to even exist or think we can learn to control it or prevent it, we create even more suffering.

While I haven’t arrived at a definitive conclusion myself, in my gut, it feels like there is a difference between day-to-day human suffering and trauma.

Dr. Gabor Mate told of his experience in medical school that the word trauma as it relates to emotion and psychological trauma wasn’t mentioned once in his 4 years of training. I know in my own training at USCF as a family nurse practitioner, I don’t think we discussed it directly either.

So what is trauma, and how might it be different from suffering? Some may say trauma is an interference with how we’d normally operate. Or that it’s when we disconnect from the physical body.

These are elements of it, but trauma isn’t just something terrible happening to us. Sexual assault or abuse is not the trauma. An earthquake or tsunami is not the trauma. The car accident or medical procedure isn’t the trauma. Parents being indifferent, depressed, or abusive is not the trauma.

The trauma is what happens in us as a result of that external event. And to expand further, like Peter Levine said, it’s what happens inside us in the absence of an empathetic witness.

Trauma happens inside us on a somatic level in our bodies and in our psyche.

Gabor Mate talks about 4 aspects of trauma, which I think help further differentiate it as something distinct from human suffering in general:

// Trauma is anything that changes you in a way that makes your future responses to the world more limited. It impacts our “response flexibility,” which means when an external trigger occurs, we have a certain capacity to actually be flexible in our response, according to what’s needed at the time. 

Our body awareness is limited (maybe we dissociate, or have uncontrollable shaking or sweating) along with our ability to regulate our other behavioral and emotional responses. We react automatically and predictably. And the greater the trauma, the greater the limitation.

This can explain why with trauma we often feel locked in the past, right? We are still responding the same way we did “back then.” But we are not there, we are here, in a new experience with a new set of resources.

I remember as a young child, my mom was late picking me up from school, so I went home with my Auntie, which I had done before (but with her knowing in advance). When my mom finally figured out where I went, she came and took me home, packed me a suitcase and threw it – and me – outside, locking me out.

There I was, terrified – especially with all the driveby shootings and drug deals going on all night and day in my neighborhood. I was also so confused. 

I banged on the door and sat on the porch until nightfall, when she finally let me back in. But she still wouldn’t speak to me.

To her, it was about why didn’t I wait if she was just running late? I must not want to be with her. I must prefer to live with my Auntie. 

She clearly had some abandonment issues too, right? She had PTSD from WWII and from an abusive childhood…and that trauma was being passed on to me.

So what did I do? I fawned. People pleased her. I got on my knees at 6 years old and begged her to take me back, to love me. I did whatever I needed to make sure she didn’t kick me out again and leave me to die alone – because that’s what it felt like.

I also closed my heart to her a little bit that day. I was terrified that someone I loved so much and who I needed so much could just dispense of me. If I cared about her suffering a little less, then maybe I could survive psychologically if that happened again.

My people-pleasing and withdrawal were an adaptive response at the time. They were helpful at the time.

But as an adult, when I continue these behaviors with my partners or with my friends…that’s a lack of response flexibility. When my husband was often gone at the beginning of our marriage and I was home alone with a baby, and when anger and voicing my needs didn’t help, I stopped caring and needing him. I made him dispensible in my mind and heart. There were other options.

// The second aspect of trauma is that there is a fundamental disconnection from ourselves, other people, and the world. This doesn’t necessarily happen with suffering. 

Have you ever had the experience of having a strong gut feeling about something, you ignoring it, and then regretting it afterwards? Sure, right?

When we say we have that gut feeling and we don’t pay attention to it, that is disconnect from ourselves. Or maybe we don’t even know what that little voice inside of us sounds like.

We are all born connected to our intuition, but trauma will disconnect us from that. Trauma leads us to stop trusting that still small voice inside of us, or to be unable to even recognize it.

// Trauma also shapes the way we see the world. So if we feel the world is unsafe (or in my case, that no one has my back, or that I can’t rely on others), that’s a trauma response – a filtered, narrowed way of seeing the world.

For example, we may believe that humans or the world can BE unsafe. But if we believe that they ARE unsafe, that’s different.

// Finally, trauma makes it nearly impossible for us to be in the present moment – or at the very least, really difficult to do so. An extreme example is psychosis – this creates extreme difficulties being in the present moment because the mind has created an alternate view of reality. Or maybe a less severe example is many cases of ADHD (there are other casues as well, but trauma can be a significant one).

The mind is always somewhere else – it feels it needs to be somewhere else. 

So for example, when my husband asks again if he can do another long trip… and essentially, can I do another long stint of solo-parenting and working full time… I go into my abandonment scenario and drama of my mom leaving me and locking me out. And I’m not in the present. I’m deep in the past.

Frankly, it’s a miracle that we all can keep moving along at all, right? Life can be hard AF.

Yet we survive because we are resilient AF. And YES, I mean you too.

Because there are actually kind people and love in the world. And we catch glimpses of that and get tastes of it.

So, my friends…one way to apply this to our everyday life is to be a little more patient and compassionate with ourselves and with one another. We are wounded wanderers, cruising around this planet and bumping into each other. 

As Ram Dass said, “We are all just walking each other home.”


In this episode, you will learn:

// 4 characteristics of trauma you won’t see in other types of suffering

// How trauma can relate to ADD / ADHD-type symptoms

// Is trauma simply a part of the 4 Noble Truths?

// Why it’s important to not misuse the word trauma



// Episode 60: How to Avoid Unnecessary Suffering

// Episode 63: Being Human is Hard – the First Noble Truth

// Episode 143: Your Wild Mind – the North + Protectors

// The Myth of Normal, by Gabore Mate

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