You’re an established adult small business owner, full-time or still side hustling. Life hasn’t always been easy, sure… but you made it to where you are with creativity, grit, and hard work.

So what’s the use of dwelling on the past?

I don’t support dwelling. It’s unhealthy, uncomfortable, and unproductive.

I do support seeking insight into the impact our past has on our present. Only then can we take tailored action to be the best—and most fulfilled—we can be.

So, could lasting effects from tough past experiences make business growth and management tougher, too?

It’s not the most pleasant question to ponder, but an important one.

But why would affirming old, traumatic life experiences even matter to business today?

Because if you don’t know something is fixable and within your control, then you won’t try.

And you’ll still suffer the hidden effects.

For instance, we know that other people and their responses aren’t fixable.

Feel anxious during public speaking? We try self-development tools—Toastmasters, exposure therapy, etc.—to address or “fix” that anxiety.

We don’t try to fix the audience.

Similarly, we know past events aren’t fixable. If we flubbed a public speech, there’s no going back.

The problem comes when we hold similar views about trauma.

The lasting effects of past trauma are “fixable”—or rather, resolvable—things. We just have to know how to, and why it’s important.

But before we can learn how to resolve lasting impacts of past trauma affecting performance today, we must first understand what classifies as a “traumatic” experience. Because many of us who’ve experienced trauma don’t even realize it.

The Many Definitions of Psychological Trauma: Which is Right?

What is “trauma”? Ask 10 different people and you may get 10 different answers. Is there a “right” way to define it?

To clarify, I refer to the psychological kind in my work (i.e., mental/emotional pain from neglect, abuse, etc.), not the physical kind (i.e. a broken bone).

Knowing what this word refers to empowers us with the knowledge to “fix” it. (Or rather, to resolve or process it.)

Here’s what it isn’t—and it’s important.

The word “trauma” is often used to describe situations that cause great emotional distress. Merriam Webster defines it as “a very difficult or unpleasant experience.”

However, behavioral health professionals recognize that the experience, the thing that happened, is actually the cause. Not the trauma.

The “trauma” itself is our emotional response to that terrible event.”

I’ll say that again:

The “trauma” is our body’s response to what happened. It is not what happened itself.

That’s super important.

Because if we think of trauma as “the thing that happened to us” (like past emotional neglect) … we can’t fix that. The past is already gone.

But one thing we can control—to a degree—is our response.

What’s disturbing enough to cause it?

We know trauma is a person’s emotional response to a terrible event. But what’s “terrible” is subjective. Each one of us can respond quite differently to the same event.

In the late ‘90s, the CDC and Kaiser Permanente did a study to measure the impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences (traumatic experiences) on long-term life and health outcomes.

They measured child traumatic stress in three main categories:

1. physical abuse (being “spanked” with hard items, “spanked” until you had marks, being slapped, pushed, etc.) or neglect (not having enough to eat, having to wear dirty clothes).

2. emotional abuse (being insulted, put down, cursed at, threatened, etc.) or neglect (feeling unsupported, unloved, unwanted, not being paid attention to, etc.), and

3. household dysfunction (parental divorce or separation, incarceration, substance dependency, psychological illness, etc.).

Those are often the most common categories and experiences we think of when discussing this topic. However, there are numerous other traumatic happenings that fall outside of those or are even more nuanced.

They might include:

  • being involved in an auto accident
  • being bullied
  • being gaslit
  • having surgery
  • breaking a bone
  • leaving a long-term relationship
  • experiencing blatant discrimination
  • the passing of a loved one
  • being betrayed
  • etc.

Note, although a few examples above cause physical trauma, I still refer only to the psychological kind: the emotional response to those physical experiences.

When does old trauma become something I need to address?

You might be wondering why, if trauma is an emotional response, it doesn’t resolve itself sometime after the experience.

To put that into perspective, consider someone who’s lost a beloved pet. That’s traumatic for most people.

The resulting feelings don’t spontaneously dissolve; they just get easier to deal with over time.

This “emotional response” that the APA calls “trauma” is a very complex physiological process. To simplify that process:

A terrible event happens.

We feel very distressed.

This all activates our body’s security alarm and defense systems.

It’s important to note that this terrible event gets stored in our nervous system as a “sensory memory” if we don’t heal from it.

This is a memory that’s strongly associated with sight, hearing, smell, touch, or taste.

To protect us from danger, our body constantly uses our senses to scan the environment for perceived threats. But now, we have this old trauma “recorded” in our nervous system (to help protect us from it happening again).

This is important.