Trauma and the Harmonic Series

The harmonic series is a really good metaphor for the way trauma gets stored in our brain.

Stick with me! I am a music nerd but I will explain.

Many guitarists will be familiar with the concept of harmonic overtones, or if you’ve ever played a loud note on a piano you may have heard very soft higher notes if you listen closely.

When you sound a pitch, it has a frequency length. Within that sound, different wavelengths can be observed in a specific order going up in pitch. Within the “fundamental” note, all these other notes are contained.

If you want to read up on that a little more, here’s a good introduction. Also here’s Andrew Huang being very excited to explain in this video if that’s more your learning style. I really like the way he explains it.

The thing that I’ve noticed recently is that in addition to the fundamental of “what is happening right now” the way I process it is that all these other events resonate at the same time. Sometimes, the fundamental will sound a harmonic that is traumatic for me, and that’s all I can hear. When my husband doesn’t feel well, sometimes I get caught up and don’t even realize I’m reacting to times we spent in the hospital, worrying about dying, wondering what was wrong, etc. That harmonic is so loud that I can’t even find the fundamental note any more.

The way to address this is different each time. Sometimes there’s nothing to do and no way to make it better, but at least noticing what’s happening can let us forgive ourselves for being traumatized instead of punishing ourselves for “being weird” or whatever. Sometimes noticing the overloud harmonics can let us get back to focusing on the fundamental of what’s happening in front of us. Sometimes we can even make a shift of some kind and then the harmonics resonate differently.

I don’t have any advice for how you should handle this, or whether it will be useful in what anybody else is processing during these strange times. Just…I hope that whatever is happening for you, that the harmonics would be friendly-sounding sometimes.


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