What is Trauma?

Psychology Today states, “Trauma is a person’s emotional response to a distressing experience. Few people can go through life without encountering some kind of trauma. Unlike ordinary hardships, traumatic events tend to be sudden and unpredictable, involve a serious threat to life—like bodily injury or death—and feel beyond a person’s control. Most important, events are traumatic to the degree that they undermine a person’s sense of safety in the world and create a sense that catastrophe could strike at any time. Parental loss in childhood, auto accidents, physical violence, sexual assault, military combat experiences, the unexpected loss of a loved one are commonly traumatic events. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/trauma).

Types of Trauma

Trauma is categorized into three main types:

Acute trauma occurs most often after a one-time event such as an accident, rape, assault, or natural disaster.  The incident is severe enough to threaten the individuals physical and/or emotional security and creates a lasting impact.

Chronic trauma happens from exposure to varied and multiple events that are persistent in nature and happen over extended periods of time. Chronic trauma can be produced by bullying, extreme situations like war, long-term serious illness, sexual abuse as well as untreated acute trauma. Victims may experience symptoms years after events have occurred.

Complex trauma results from numerous or repeated events where the victim feels trapped and a lost sense of safety. Complex trauma is often interpersonal. Victims of domestic violence, childhood abuse and/or neglect, dysfunctional family environments, and other recurring circumstances contribute to complex trauma.

Symptoms of Trauma

The way someone experiences trauma either physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually is as varied and unique as the person themselves. There is no right or wrong way to experience trauma. What is important to understand is that all responses to trauma are normal physiological reactions. Let me say that again, your stress reactions, your emotional and physical symptoms are normal biological reactions to an abnormal event.

Emotional & psychological symptoms:

  • Shock, denial, or disbelief
  • Confusion, difficulty concentrating
  • Anger, irritability, mood swings
  • Anxiety and fear
  • Guilt, shame, self-blame
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Feeling sad or hopeless
  • Feeling disconnected or numb

Physical symptoms:

  • Insomnia or nightmares
  • Fatigue
  • Being startled easily
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Edginess and agitation
  • Aches and pains
  • Muscle tension


How Trauma Affects the Brain

The limbic system engages in the processing and regulating of emotions and formation and storage of memories. It is believed to be a principal element in the body’s response to stress, being highly connected to the endocrine and autonomic nervous systems.

Events the brain defines as distressing activate the amygdala, the emotional and instinct/survival part of the brain that oversees detecting threats. It then sends out a SOS to multiple body systems to prepare for defense. The sympathetic nervous system is triggered and starts pumping stress hormones called adrenaline and noradrenaline.  These stress hormones initiate the fight-flight-or-freeze response. Anxiety, fear, shock, aggression, and anger are all normal physiological responses to traumatic experiences.  

When a traumatic memory is triggered, the amygdala fires up and goes into overdrive starting the sequence of events noted above. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates impulses and emotions, gets suppressed causing less ability to control your emotions like fear. Your reactive state gets stuck in the on position. To add insult to injury, the activity of the hippocampus, the structure of the brain that helps embed memory and distinguish between past and present, is reduced and perceives the memory as a real threat.

Trauma can cause your brain to remain in a state of hypervigilance, suppressing your memory and impulse control and trapping you in a constant state of strong emotional reactivity. In layman’s terms, each time you remember the traumatic event your brain sees it as real and reacts by triggering a stress response causing distressing symptoms.

Healing from Trauma

Healing from trauma requires a rewiring and retraining of your brain. You need to learn new coping mechanisms to down regulate your hyperactive amygdala (emotional and reactive regulator), build your hippocampus (learning and memory) and get your prefrontal cortex (attention, focus, concentration) back in control.

Treatment for trauma requires a holistic approach that focuses on the entire person, mind, body and soul. Education on how the brain functions and teaching ways calm your overactive nervous system is paramount for all other therapeutic techniques to work. If you do not have your lizard brain (limbic system) in a calm state, your executive brain can’t learn or retain any other skills.

The big take away I hope you get from this is that the monster in your head is not your fault. Our brains are designed to protect us, but sometimes in it’s gallant effort to protect us, it goes off the rails and we need to bring it back online.