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Understanding Trauma

What Is Trauma?.

Trauma itself is any experience which overwhelms the normal coping mechanisms that we have and a traumatic reaction is the result of the natural emergency defences of the body kicking in for survival.

It is a very broad definition and typically you may think it covers victims of violence, war and natural disasters. However, there are more subtle forms of trauma, such as racism and poverty which can impact upon your life creating fear and anxiety which may be crippling you. In fact virtually any experience which overwhelms you, particularly where that experience is prolonged (chronic) in nature and including repeated episodes of stress, can lead to the symptoms of trauma. Further many events, though giving the appearance of being minor or already dealt with or “got over” can manifest as trauma symptoms in later life. These traumatic experiences can start at a very early age and the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study found that ACE’s were much more common that previously supposed and had a significant correlation with negative health outcomes in later life.

Peter Levine in his book “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma” lists just some of events which cause traumatic reactions later in life:

  • Foetal Trauma.

  • Birth Trauma.

  • Loss of Parent or family member.

  • Illness.

  • Injuries, Falls and accidents.

  • Sexual, Physical and Emotional Abuse.

  • Witnessing and Experiencing Violence.

  • Wars and Natural Disasters.

  • Some surgeries and medical procedures.

  • Anesthesia

  • Prolonged Immobilisation.


The Initial Symptoms of Trauma:


Trauma has a cumulative effect, the symptoms tend to develop over time. There are however four core symptoms that occur in the first instance in response to an event:

  • Hyperarousal: Initial physiological and psychological changes such as elevated heartbeat and breath, tension, the jitters, sleep difficulty, anxiety and rapid thoughts.

  • Constriction: In direct response to hyperarousal constriction occurs throughout our body (for example the blood vessels in the extremities constrict to provide more blood for the muscles to take action)  and our perceptions change and become directed to the threat to enable us to survive the event. We prepare for the Flight, Fight or Freeze response by mobilising all our energy via the nervous system.

  • Dissociation (and Denial): If we cannot escape then the nervous system mobilises other responses and dissociation is one of the classic symptoms of Trauma. It enables us to survive what is overwhelming by disconnecting the energy of the hyperarousal from what is being experienced. This disconnection occurs in any, or all, of four ways: disconnecting the consciousness from the body (being elsewhere), disconnecting one part of the body from the rest, disconnecting from the emotions, thoughts and sensations and disconnecting from the memory (denial).

  • Feelings of being Helpless: When all else fails, despite the system goes into the most primitive response you become immobile and the body becomes paralysed and the energy in the nervous system is held in check.

Note: This is an evolutionary hardwired response to a life threatening event  and does not necessarily lead to trauma, but may do so when the responses become habitual and chronic.

Other symptoms that subsequently develop include:

  • Dramatic mood changes, depression, irritability and feelings of helplessness.

  • Anxiety, panic, nervousness and anger.

  • Difficulty sleeping and concentrating.

  • Flashback of the event and fear the event will re-occur.

  • Being on guard all of the time (hypervigilance).

  • Amnesia, forgetfulness, feeling “spaced”.

  • Reduced emotional responses, failing to make commitments and failure to bond with others.

  • Sensitivity to light and sound.

  •  Hyperactivity.

  • The Physical stress symptoms.

  • Immune system suppression and psychosomatic illnesses.

  • Low energy and fatigue.

  • Altered eating patterns.

  • Isolation, withdrawal loss of the joy of life.

What is important to know is that these symptoms can continue to develop over time and may lead to the development of what is known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Typically you may think that PTSD is something that war veterans are potentially subject too and this is the case, but it has been estimated that in any given year in the US approximately 3.5% of adults have PTSD and 9% will develop it during their life. World wide rates are between 0.5% and 1% per year. (1)

In general, 16% of children exposed to a traumatic event develop PTSD, varying according to type of exposure and gender (2) and about 50% of people develop PTSD following rape (3).

1: American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. pp. 271–280.

2: Alisic; et al. "Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder in trauma-exposed children and adolescents: meta-analysis". British Journal of Psychiatry. 204 (5): 335-340.

3: Bisson, JI; Cosgrove, S; Lewis, C; Robert, NP (26 November 2015). "Post-traumatic stress disorder.". BMJ (Clinical research ed.). 351: h6161.

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