What is Trauma?
I define trauma as an experience or situation that fundamentally alters the way I believe the world should work.
My perception of the world gets flipped upside down.
If I’m not able to integrate these experiences into my life.
It can really leave me with a profound sense of isolation and a feeling of being alone. That I can’t connect with anybody. It can impact the way I feel about myself, and start to invalidate my own beliefs about myself, and how the world works.
Trauma’s complex, it’s cumulative, and it’s not always what it seems.
We all kind of know at this point that for a lot of different reasons in the behavioral health field.
It’s largely been stigmatized throughout most of our lives in terms of getting help for emotional challenges. But what I’ve come to understand is that there’s almost a stigma around the word stigma today.
And here’s what I mean by that a lot of people tend to assume. Most people don’t seek help because they’re scared. They’re going to be branded as weak or defective. Scared that it’s going to end their career or compromise their relationships with others.
And although there’s certainly some truth to that in some organizations.
I’m not mitigating that but I found it’s actually much more complex than that.
Those who are really struggling with shame or guilt sometimes they don’t believe they deserve to get help. Sometimes that belief is even subconscious to the point where they’re not even cognitive of it.
Others don’t seek help because they don’t have the vernacular or the vocabulary. To describe the complex deep-seated feelings that they’re experiencing.
If I can’t put what I’m dealing with into words how am I possibly going to project that to somebody else to get help for it? Others don’t seek help because they’ve gotten so used to living in pain that they don’t know what will happen in the absence of pain.
What I have found out that this is a function of shame and a function of guilt and it’s inherent to those emotions.
Shame is really a feeling we feel worthless.
That we’re worth less than other people.
The complexity behind shame it’s a circle that fuels itself by more shame. It really does, it’s a positive feedback loop. We feel ashamed of ourselves and we go do things.
We turn to addiction, drugs, alcohol, working ourselves into the ground, unhealthy relationships, and cutting.
And those things on the surface can appear to work at the moment, can appear to feel up a void temporarily.
But what happens the next day?
What happens the next morning? You feel even worse about yourself. You cause even more problems. And this process continues to feed itself, by creating more shame and more guilt. And the thing is something has to be able to stop the flow.
What I see as one of the largest challenges we’re facing right now.
And this drive the very work I do today is to help people first uncover the root cause of their emotional pain.
To give them permission to recognize and validate the true source of it. Which is a very difficult thing to pin down. Once that happens though. Once we’re able to identify the root cause of the shame, that is the ultimate weakness of shame.
It does have a weakness and that begins by shining light upon it.
Once it is identified it starts to collapse and the healing journey can actually begin. To explain why trauma is not always what it seems. I’ll take you back to my near-death experience.
Back in 2007, I used to be in the military.
I was an Army infantry officer.
And back into 2007. I was shot and killed by an enemy sniper in Baghdad.
The bullet actually killed two people. It first severed the aorta of my senior, noncommissioned officer, and then ricocheted into my upper right sigh and severed my femoral artery and I went on to flatline for 15 minutes.
Before somehow being revived.
I woke up about two days later. To learn I had flatlined for that long and come back from this impossible situation. But more importantly, I learned while I had survived staff sergeant Marlon Harper did not.
Over the next ten years. I’d soon come to learn that the experience of dying would pale in comparison to the decade-long emotional struggle that I’d go through as I sought to find meaning in the second life.
And many people assumed near-death experience was the crux of the trauma for me.
A lot of people look at this near-death experience as almost like the holy grail of trauma. It’s big. It’s obvious.
But what I’ve found and it took me almost 10 years to really uncover this that it had very little to do with dying, and it had much more to do with everything that happened before and everything happened afterward.
Things like shame, powerlessness, betrayal, and guilt. It was living with an incurable disease.
I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease about 10 years ago as well, and I’ll tell you right now. I’d rather get shot ten times over than to live with an incurable immune disorder. I have got a ton of empathy for people who are in chronic pain, cancer patients.
When you lose your health you can lose everything and it feels extremely powerless.
The abandonment experienced in relationships which is something all of us deal with at some point in our lives. Every suicidal spiral I was in over the last 10 years.
The catalyst not necessarily the cause, but the catalyst has been a failed relationship
So there are many other things that contributed to the trauma.
But I’ll give you one specific example to demonstrate just how complex. And how small the differences can be specific to this near-death experience.
When I was medically evacuated out of Baghdad out of Iraq after this injury.
I was sent to a hospital in the United States called Walter Reed Army Medical Center. This is the biggest probably the best hospital in the United States military. And it’s where all the most severely wounded service members are sent to heal.
Medically the care I received there was phenomenal there’s nowhere else I would rather be.
But emotionally it was a very difficult place to be. Because you’re surrounded by the worst of the worst injuries you can think of amputees and burn victims.
You’re seeing the impact it has on their family members.
To display how severe my injury was I was one of the only ones in that entire hospital that was expected to make a full recovery. And the image that I will never forget, and I and I never want to, is, I walked around a corner one day. And saw this beautiful young blonde girl in her early 20s.
Pushing around her new double-amputee fiance in a wheelchair. It’s an image that just riveted me.
So the guilt that I was experiencing. Wasn’t really grounded in losing staff sergeant Marlon Harper. The former survivor’s guilt where he died, and I lived.
The guilt was in my ability to heal when others couldn’t, so that’s a very distinct difference.
It may seem to sound like I’m splitting hairs, but when it comes to resolving trauma making that distinction is crucial.
As I believe my trauma was about Marlon exclusively.
Left me trapped in this positive feedback loop of shame and guilt. When I finally pinned down the true root cause I was able to identify it and start to overcome it.
Making that distinction requires sometimes to have the strength and courage. To dive into the deepest corners of our souls and be truly honest with ourselves.
But that’s not a journey we need to take alone. I’m only here today because of the perspective and the power of human connection. That surrounds me throughout the entire journey.
Do you think we’re limited by definitions of what trauma is?
It’s important to try to avoid definitions because a lot of them are flat-out wrong or limited.
We as human beings have a natural tendency to compare our experiences with other people. And when it comes to the trauma I encourage everybody to avoid the urge to do that.
Years ago when I started speaking.
The very common response I would get after a talk. Is somebody will come up to me they will be really hit by the talk in a positive way. But they will start their conversations by saying you know Josh I haven’t been through anything you’ve been through but and then they tell their experiences.
But this is precisely what we wanna try to avoid.
The point is when I start to compare myself with other people. I am almost minimizing my own experiences and my own pain.
You don’t need to be resurrected from the dead to be in pain.
For all of us healing is a journey never a fixed point in time.
When it comes to integrating these experiences into our lives. While it’s crucial to depend on the support of those around us in difficult times. It’s a very internal journey it’s a very internal process and that’s needed because. All of us are different.
All of us have been raised differently.
Trauma’s very cumulative.
What I mean by the accumulative effect of trauma is when we move forward in our lives without resolving or integrating past traumatic experiences, it’s almost like we’re trying to build a house on a cracked foundation.
We don’t necessarily know that there’s a crack there at first.
But the more that we continue to build upon that house without repairing the crack.
We never really know what type of experience or situation is going to cause it to collapse one day even if it’s something insignificant or seemingly insignificant on the surface.
So regardless of how we’re responding to the present moment.
There’s usually much more behind it than what’s in front of us.
The process here is being able to do that investigative work into our past lives in order to understand.
Not to fault not to blame, not to make excuses, but simply to understand why we’re responding the way we are in the present moment.
And that knowledge when it’s integrated can give us the power to transform and to move forward.
What tools to use to detect the symptoms of what needs to heal before it gets severe?
Sometimes identifying the symptoms can be incredibly challenging and I’ll make this a slightly different direction.
Not two years after I was shot. I was on the national speaking circuit. I was doing hundreds of talks and out there with all the best of intentions trying to help other people.
Yet back, then.
I wasn’t healthy myself, and I didn’t know.
What was interesting is that the larger national discussion around post-traumatic stress (the post-trauma experience).
Revolved around a lot of the arousal symptoms that are kind of more obvious to identify. This includes things like jumpiness, anxiety, nightmares, and night sweats. Including opposing to be around crowded places and isolating ourselves.
I really didn’t experience many of those things on the surface.
And it really almost in many ways gave me a false sense of security.
Before long hundreds of talks later. Here I was on CNN and Fox News and BBC and Oprah. I was giving presentations at some of the biggest behavioral health conferences in the world.
I was interacting with some of the best clinicians out there.
And despite all of that I still failed to recognize the deeper symptoms within myself. The deep emotional void I was experiencing was grounded in the moral ethical and spiritual wounds associated with trauma.
And those things back then were never discussed and that’s precisely what I’m trying to change today.
So the identification with me as I look back in retrospect.
One of the bigger signs that I had was a pretty serious sense of emotional withdrawal. I was emotionally numb.
There was no happiness, no sadness, no fear, no confidence. It was an emotional numbness that really impacted my ability to interact with other people.
So when it comes to identifying these things.
We really need to take a deeper look both within ourselves and be willing to emphasize with others on a much deeper level.
This is really where I get to the essence of this concept the title of my book the beauty of a darker soul. In that statement, it’s a paradox the beauty of a darker soul what does it mean?
For that, I turn to a gentleman named Viktor Frankl.
He is a world-renowned psychiatry and Holocaust survivor who wrote a book called man search for meaning.
So brilliant work that made a profound impact on my life.
In that book, Frankl tells us without suffering and death human life can not be complete. And despite the truth in that statement, it can be a very difficult concept to internalize in the face of trauma.
But what I have found as I look back on this decade long journey.
There is a very clear pattern that has emerged. And that is even in my darkest moments. Even at times when I believed that nobody could understand what I was experiencing.
There was always someone in my life who proved me wrong.
They were people who had the strength to be vulnerable. And there were people at some point in their lives. In their own ways, we’re exposed to the darker side of human nature.
And when we’re able to make past our superficial differences on the surface.
When we are able to connect at the level of the deeper emotions that are very human.
Shame, powerlessness, betrayal, and guilt.
Those things transcend any type of superficial difference and connect us at the root of human experience.
If you know guilt then you’ve already walked in some of the battlefields as I. If you know shame then you already know the deepest parts of who I am.
Our experiences may be different. But the emotions that manifest from them can be very similar when we look at them through this lens.
The power of connecting with each other even in the darkest times. It can often give us the biggest strength to take that step forward to continue that journey.
Can a person live without experiencing trauma?
Frankly, all of us experience trauma throughout our lives, and trauma isn’t necessarily a bad word.
And that’s a hard thing to internalize, especially depending on the situation, but all of us experience it.
Whether it’s being bullied, whether it hearing something on the news, whether it’s losing somebody close to us in our lives even a parent or loved one.
All of those things can shape the way that we feel about the world and contribute to our perception. That what we’re experiencing isn’t how it’s supposed to be. And when we experience it’s an opportunity for us to look at life differently with a bigger perspective.
And integrate that new part of us into our lives to fully live in the present.
If you’re really struggling what I can tell you is the journey of going through this fight every single day to take the next step forward.
Ultimately gave me such a deeper perspective on life that broadened my emotional bandwidth and gave me the capacity to empathize with others on a much deeper level.
This gives us the opportunity.
To help other people to help humanity to do our part and that is where I find beauty within the darkness.
That is where I find the deepest meaning in life.
And I wouldn’t trade a single one of my experiences in order to get to the place I am today. I know there were times when I was I felt completely broken, I felt hopeless, I couldn’t see past an hour, I couldn’t see past the day.
In those moments it was the people surrounding me who were able to give me that hope.
It’s a two-way street when people were approaching me.
They had the courage to approach and sometimes have those difficult conversations, but I had to have the courage to listen.
Sometimes we need to be willing to place blind trust and faith.
In the people closest to us in order to find the strength to move forward.
The moment of my death going back to the near-death experience was the most peaceful experience of my life. I remember in indistinct detail the last second or two that I was still alive the point that I was transitioning to death.
And it’s a feeling that I can only describe as one of absolute and complete surrender.
To something much greater than ourselves and through that surrender came just an overwhelming sense of peace.
It was like every good, bad, positive, doubt, hope and everything just vanished. It was like the spirit became part of everything and nothing at the same time. The challenge as beautiful as that moment was, I spent 10 years trying to get back to it, trying to understand what that meant.
Change is hard transformation is hard, and we have a tendency to approach new experiences especially after we experienced profound trauma.
Suddenly the world is new and we tend to live in our old selves within this new environment and the two don’t necessarily fit.
And what I had to ultimately learn to do and learn to accept as I had to accept the death of my old self in order to fully live in the present.
It required to surrender and it required faith.
Regardless of if you have religious preferences or spiritual preferences.
We are part of something greater than ourselves when we can internalize that in whatever way that means to us that is where the relinquishment of these emotions begins.
Identification is the first step.
To live in the present is the second step.
How many times are we overextending ourselves to reach into the future? You think about the next 10 years, the next year the next week, the next day even the next hour.
And maintaining anxiety over what we need to do versus the breath that we’re taking right now in the present moment.
And what we can do right now to resolve that.
So we tend to either extend ourselves too far in the future or drag ourselves behind by thinking too much in the past.
The steps of transformation really begin when we can maintain that powerful sense of awareness and center ourselves within the present.
What tool has made the most fundamental difference in your life?
Learning how to breathe the right way.
If you watch a child breathe.
They tend to breathe through their stomachs. Their bellies expand and contract to expand and contract. But if you look at grown adults we tend to breathe through our chests.
On average I think it’s somewhere around 17 or 18 breaths per minute is what we adults take.
The ideal we aim for is to get people naturally taking only about 4 or 6 breaths per minute.
There’s a very real physiological effect when we learn to breathe the right way. Taking those short shallow breaths triggers our sympathetic nervous system, which is a kind of flight or fight system.
So when we’re taking these short shallow breath we’re constantly on go mode.
We can learn to calm the breath to slow the breath down to harness the power to bring ourselves back to the present moment it actually starts to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which brings us back into a state of physiological balance.
Learning how to breathe is probably the most powerful venue or a powerful tool we have to be able to access that part of us.
Can I heal in Isolation?
I firmly believe we have all of the strengths within ourselves to do that.
That being said it’s easy to lose our way, and this is where we have to also be willing to engage the support of those who are close to us.
There’s a clinical therapist out here in Monterey, California.
That’s a good friend of mine.
Last year I was shadowing a group session with her and after the session.
She turned to me and said you know Josh, I really think that the role of a therapist is to help people suffer productively as opposed to allowing them to suffer in vain.
Healing and transformation is a journey, we do have to strengthen the tools within us when we can.
If we try to approach it completely by ourselves in isolation.
It’s very easy to swerve off the highway and head towards the cliff.
This is where our close friends are mentors our teachers our therapist whoever it is in our life that we can gain that perspective from can help keep us on the centerline and suffer more productively.
I have personally worked with therapists over the last couple of years on and off, but it was very sporadic for me.
I never subscribed to kind of the traditional therapeutic model and for me, that was okay. That’s what worked.
There were many other things that I applied and adapted within my life that didn’t necessarily depend on the medical community, and the most important of those is establishing a daily practice.
That we integrate into our lives regardless of the emotional state that we’re in.
There are a couple of things in life we have direct control over, some of those things are diet, exercise, and breathwork.
Every day regardless of how I’m feeling I get up early in the morning.
I go to the gym.
I start warming up with a brief yoga sequence.
I then conduct a high-intensity workout. I cool down with another yoga sequence and a brief breathwork meditation exercise, and then I incorporate some type of spiritual reading into that practice as well.
This whole process that I just described.
It only takes about an hour or hour-and-a-half for me, and the point is when we can do that every single day.
When we commit to that, when we have the discipline to do that and that discipline is for ourselves this isn’t for competition, it isn’t to train up for anything.
It’s a practice that we focus on intentionality upon.
And what that allows us to do is win the day it allows us to control the day.
Because of every single morning every single day.
This is an opportunity for me to regain control of my life. The rest of the day might not be that great, but at least it gives me something to look forward to the next morning.
Establishing a practice can sound intimidating to some right, but it doesn’t have to be a massive effort.
When I started doing breathwork.
I was very resistant to the idea of it is a couple of years ago.
But I decided to give it a chance and instead of trying to do breathwork for an hour a day or even 10 breaths in a single day all I did was I said I am going to take one conscious breath every day.
And that’s it and that’s literally how I started one conscious breath per day, and if you do that with intentionality if you focus on how the breath feels within your body.
If you focus on trying to let go of all of the cognitive thoughts that we have all of the emotions that we have in just feel the breath doing that once per day.
I ended up convincing myself that it worked and before long.
I was doing to rest of the day, and then I was doing 10, and then I’m incorporating into this daily practice so the key is to start small right do something that you’re comfortable with.
Whether that’s breathwork diet exercise a combination of all three whether it’s yoga or Tai Chi all of those modalities, by the way, are grounded in breathwork.
Start small and gradually build upon that to whatever you’re comfortable with.
Joshua Mantz, he is a Speaker spoke on TEDx, Oprah, Fox News, CNN, and Author of The Beauty of a Darker Soul: Overcoming Trauma through the Power of Human Connection. Josh has an incredible story. He was shot and killed in combat, then resurrected.