What Is Trauma?

Some memories are more than just moments from our past. We all remember and share the high points in our lives, but many of us bury the most painful and devastating episodes we struggle to forget. Trauma can come in many forms and can happen within minutes, but its damage can linger and fester for years and even decades afterward. Psychological research even suggests that trauma may act as a foundation or gateway for developing new mental health issues like severe depression, anxiety, and more.

Trauma is a common and recurrent condition of life. Dr. John Briere, one of the world’s foremost trauma experts, estimates that most Americans have had an average of six to seven distinct traumatic events occur in their lives. However, these traumas are not only the result of car accidents or violent crime. The deepest wounds are usually inflicted by those closest to us. The end of a relationship is one of the most traumatic events we can experience. Whether it is with a spouse, close friend, family member, or our own children, we are permanently changed when these relationships end or are fundamentally different. We are left confused, anxious, and with psychological wounds for years to come.

Approximately 30% of the population never develop the symptoms of ongoing trauma and pick up right where their lives left off before the traumatic event. For the rest of us, trauma can manifest in different ways. Some of us begin to experience periodic and intense episodes of emotional dysregulation when ordinary challenges face us. Despite our best efforts, we are unable to control our emotions and go from zero-to-sixty at the drop of a hat. We often try to reassert control or calm ourselves by avoiding and denying the current stressor, withdrawing from the moment or even our lives entirely, or lashing out emotionally when we feel wronged. Our emotions are more intense and more disruptive to our lives than they should be.

Part of the problem is the beliefs and memories from the scars of previous trauma. Many of us may still bear the psychological imprint of previous traumas and deeply hurtful events in our lives. Our minds can suddenly remember these old wounds at any time of day and in seemingly random places, but they plunge us back into our worst and painful moments full of sorrow, agony, and pain. Dr. Briere mentioned discreet traumatic events across our lives, but research suggests that sometimes they don’t stay entirely separate and clean. In a condition called Complex Trauma, traumatic events over years and even decades build progressively on top of one another to create new nightmares, devastating thoughts, and crippling belief systems.

If trauma goes unaddressed and takes root, underlying negative beliefs that were generated by the traumatic events begin to seriously disrupt our lives. An everyday stressor that we used to handle without a thought becomes overwhelming and impossible to deal with. Over time as the trauma begins to take over, our productivity falls, our withdrawal increases, and our ability to manage our reactions seems strangely ineffective. The tsunami of anguish and sadness floods our awareness fully and unexpectedly. We have no understanding of why we are feeling so awful, and there may not even be a specific cause in this moment for these new feelings. Deep underlying traumas can cause intense reactions to the most innocent of situations, and we are plunged into a state of extreme emotional saturation without a clear cause-and-effect. Despite our best efforts, we cannot seem to regulate our emotions and calm down.

Recent psychological research teaches that trauma is a condition of powerlessness and utter vulnerability. Our efforts to act on our environment fails. Our attempts to change what is happening in our lives is no longer working. Our pleas to be heard, understood, and even forgiven are ignored. Our normal strategies to communicate and connect are worthless. We become frantic and lost as our sense of helplessness and hopelessness grows during these emotionally devastating events. What we should be able to handle and solve suddenly seems insurmountable.

If this sounds like something you or your loved one is experiencing, please contact us immediately to schedule an intake appointment. Don’t let trauma take over your life. Call us today.

Symptoms of Trauma

When trauma takes hold, it is diagnosed as either Type I or Type II Trauma based on the work of Courtois and Ford.

Type I Trauma is an expected reaction to a single traumatic incident including sudden unexpected accidents, disasters, a single episode of abuse or assault, witnessing violence, and more. They are discreet events with a beginning and an end, but they are extraordinary occurrences that are unlikely to happen again anytime soon or under the same circumstances.

Type II Trauma is far more frequent and builds upon and combines with other traumas from our past. It is often caused by interpersonal traumas and can substantively change your basic belief systems about your life, the world, and more. These are the traumas that really strike at the core of who we are and are often labeled as “Complex Trauma” because they place the person at risk for other mental health issues (including major anxiety disorders, PTSD, and more) and possibly interruptions and breakdowns in the most fundamental parts of psychological health.

In addition, trauma can impact our brain functioning and keep us in a constant state of “high alert.” Under normal circumstances, most people fall into a daily routine where a large portion of their day is planned out and expected. Our brains begin to relax and encode these normal and expected events to free up brainpower for other tasks. However, the traumatized brain does not allow itself to relax and recharge. This version will always stay engaged to some degree on “fight or flight” reflexes and ensuring our survival; always scanning the environment for new threats and possible pitfalls. In response, we often narrow our world down to smaller, completely controlled environments and situations that we have labeled as “safe” before we allow ourselves to relax again. The basic need for safety comes before all else.

Why Trauma Is So Impactful

Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk and Dr. Peter Levine pioneered research to show the mind-body connection after trauma. Any time we process new information, enter a new environment, meet new people, etc., we form explicit and implicit memories based on our experience. The brain treats each type of memory differently, but they ultimately merge to form one unified memory of an encounter. Explicit memories are usually the intellectual and informational memories such as factual information, intellectual concepts, environmental data, and more. These are the conscious and intentional memories that we can access if and when we need to in the future. Implicit memory is more procedural and physical, and it covers the unconscious memories, feelings, and skills we use every day like eating, walking, driving a car, and more. Once we master a skill or task, it often gets stored in implicit memory so your conscious mind doesn’t need to focus on or learn it again. This is why “just like riding a bike” is such a popular saying. Once we’ve mastered riding a bike, our mind remembers how to do it and the feeling of how to accomplish the goal automatically.

However, trauma can also be encoded into our implicit memory. We may struggle to understand why these latent implicit memories are taking over our minds and causing us to emotionally and sometimes physically react. The memories of the trauma become a pure and uncontrolled feeling coursing through our whole body and are often triggered by mundane or seemingly unrelated stimuli. For example, victims of violent crime have been triggered by certain types of music because the brain is reminded of police or ambulance sirens and instantly experiences the traumatic event again. Common examples of implicit memories created by trauma include intense feelings of neglect, exploitation, betrayal, rejection, antipathy, loathing, abhorrence, unfounded and damaging accusations, lack of protection by those we trust, emotional or physical bullying, domestic violence, and more. These types of traumas are especially injurious because of their explicit attack on our fundamental value as a person and the intense amount of energy we must channel to survive and overcome them.

The majority of the symptoms of trauma fall into three categories:

1.) Hyper-Arousal – our minds are on permanent alert always looking for the next threat or injury. We may startle or react easily to even small or minute stimuli. We often sleep poorly and have trouble holding attention.
2.) Intrusion – at the moment of trauma, our brains stop and freeze time. The brain encodes the memory incorrectly, and sometimes it can pop up in our conscious mind and cause unwelcome pain. This can happen at any time; even when we are asleep.
3.) Constriction – the brain goes into complete emotional shutdown and focuses solely on basic functions. This gives us some temporary distance from the pain, but it can also create distance from our loved ones and the ways we can solve the issue at hand. The emotional constriction often becomes more entrenched over time and becomes a state of psychological surrender when we are faced with adversity.

Complex Trauma

As previously mentioned, Complex Trauma occurs when multiple traumas, even from years or decades earlier in life, combine and layer onto one another to create a completely new trauma reaction. Our brain’s reaction and emotional dysregulation caused by trauma becomes more powerful with each instance, and these layered traumas prevent us from ever feeling safe, hopeful, or effective. We become increasingly isolated in our pain and from those around us who could provide support and connection. Without safety or a sense of community, we continue to spiral downward into isolation and darkness.

When you are deeply traumatized, your whole focus in life is just to survive and your mind is constantly anticipating and preparing for the worst outcomes. It is unable to tolerate any uncertainty and any unanswered question or concern can set off an entire anxiety reaction. Our bodies and minds remain in a constant “fight or flight” reaction even after any danger has long since passed and been neutralized. Without proper intervention and treatment, Complex Trauma can become a life-defining reaction that dominates every hour of every day for the rest of your life.

Complex Trauma is actually far more common than many people would expect. It strikes people from every walk of life, and it can manifest from even “normal” traumas of growing up or relationships. However, it often goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed as another psychological condition. Since it is so rarely properly treated, Complex Trauma dominates many lives that could be saved.

If this sounds like something you or your loved one is experiencing, please contact us immediately to schedule an intake appointment with our trauma experts. Don’t let trauma take over your life. Call us today.

Early Life Trauma

Trauma in early life is especially injurious to psychological development. The earlier the trauma, the more damaging it will be going forward. In addition, the frequency, intensity, and type of trauma (random accidents or natural disasters versus loss of relationships or emotional abuse) will determine the impact on the developing mind. Many of us experience significant trauma in our early lives even though we may not think of it as such. An emotionally neglectful mother, a verbally abusive father, or even a chronically chaotic home environment are all common examples of childhood trauma. However, many children experience additional extreme traumas including emotional, physical, or even sexual abuse. Abuse situations, especially in childhood, cut to our core beliefs around trust and safety and forever change us. When abuse is from a family member or trusted adult, it can be a cataclysmic event in the developing mind of a child.

If trauma occurs in childhood, the effect is more impactful since we have not yet mastered common coping skills or psychological strategies we acquire in adulthood. Children are sensitive to their environment, and the body and brain can both be deeply affected by trauma. If trauma is repeated and regular, energy and attention that should be put toward normal psychological development will instead be redirected to basic survival. They are unable to be children and lose out on important childhood milestones forever changing the course of their lives.

If this sounds like you or your loved one, please contact us today to schedule an intake appointment. Trauma can be treated and overcome through therapy, and you can regain control over the direction of your life. Call us today to speak to a trauma expert.

This article includes references to the work of multiple psychological researchers and studies including the work of Bessel van der Kolk, MD, Judith Herman, MD, Christine Courtois, Ph.D., Julian Ford, Ph.D., and John Briere, Ph.D.