In this context we are considering psychological trauma, as opposed to physical trauma, which refers to the physical injury caused by somebody or something external to the person.
A simple but accurate definition of psychological trauma is provided by Peter Levine (2008) – ‘we become traumatised when our ability to respond to a perceived threat is in some way overwhelmed’.
It used to be thought that trauma could be expected or defined by the nature of particular situations or events, such as car accidents or assault. However it is now understood that each person responds uniquely to the things that happen to them. Regardless of the event or situation, trauma symptoms indicate traumatisation.
Similarly, not everyone who experiences traumatic situations and events develops trauma symptoms and it is also possible for symptoms to surface months or years after an event or experience.
There are thought to be two aspects to life events that can result in trauma symptoms:
a person perceives a threat to their safely and/or survival
a person becomes overwhelmed by an experience and is unable to process and make sense of it.
When either of these things happens an ancient instinctive response occurs in the most primal part of the human brain, triggering a reaction in the body aimed at increasing the chance of survival.
These responses differ depending on the nature and intensity of the threatening situation. The threat response system starts with an attempt to deal with a potential threat by being friendly or sociable. If this is not possible or achievable the body will generate the intense energy of the fight/flight response. If in turn fighting or escape is not possible the body may freeze and/or collapse into numbness and withdrawal. These are deeply instinctual responses that happen in the brain and central nervous system that cannot be stopped or controlled.
Trauma symptoms occur if the intense energy generated in the body to respond to the threat is not able to be expressed or discharged.
Commonly experienced trauma symptoms
Feeling like you are stuck in ‘overdrive’, anger, irritability and agitation, aches and pains, fatigue, insomnia or nightmares, confusion and difficulty concentrating, avoiding reminders or triggers, numbness and feeling disconnected from yourself and others, emotional overwhelm, being startled easily, withdrawing from others as well as difficulty trusting, anxiety and fear and feelings of sadness, hopelessness and despair.
Trauma symptoms can be caused by a single event, a series of events or by being exposed to a distressing or unsafe environment over a period of time. Trauma can also be trans-generational, children are particularly vulnerable and babies can be affected prior to and at birth.
Common causes of trauma
Accidents, assault, childhood abuse and neglect, natural disasters, complicated birthing (for mother, infant and support people), medical procedures and serious illness, bullying, death of a loved one, rape and sexual abuse, domestic violence, military service, attachment disturbance, witnessing violence, terrorism, relocation and religious/racial/cultural abuse among others.
How a person responds to a traumatic event or environment depends on a number of factors including; previous experiences of trauma, vulnerability to stress due to age, disability, pre-existing mental health issues, childhood development and experiences and the invasiveness or interpersonal nature of the trauma.
The survival mechanism in the brain and central nervous system that result in trauma symptoms is fundamentally physiological but if symptoms are left unresolved they are not only likely to result in mental health issues such as post traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, they are also likely to impact on core beliefs, emotional tendencies, relationships and physical health.
Read more on Therapy Options for trauma treatment.