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  • Writer's pictureTiffany McBride, LCPC

Trauma (Pt. 1)

Updated: Sep 6, 2020

PTSD, is a result from trauma. In order to understand PTSD, it is important to understand how trauma is defined. Although there is little agreement on the overall definition of trauma, the most common definitions from current research are explored here.

Trauma is a disturbing fact of life and most individuals have been traumatized. Trauma does not pertain to soldiers or victims of abuse or attack alone. Other traumas can include “natural disasters, exposure to violence, accidents, falls, serious illnesses, sudden loss, surgical and other necessary medical and dental procedures, difficult births, and even high levels of stress during pregnancy.” (Levine 1997, p. 19) According to Shapiro & Forrest (1997), traumas included “racial or ethnic discrimination, verbal abuse, cyberbullying, surviving divorce, experiencing a medical crisis, spiritual abuse, emotional blackmail, losing a pet, rape, witnessing a murder, natural disasters, and war.” (Shapiro & Forrest, 1997)

Scholars Ford & Courtois (2009) study and define the term of complex trauma. Complex trauma refers to conditions of prolonged trauma (continuous occurrences of physical, mental, sexual abuse) or trauma that occurs at developmental stages of a child (neglect, abuse, medical issues), which can lead to developmental trauma affecting a child’s development of personality, behavior, and affect. (Ford & Courtois, 2009; Kolk 2005)

According to the American Psychological Association Trauma is defined as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives." (APA, 2019) Kolk defines trauma to be unbearable and intolerable and if these traumas are left unhealed or unaddressed, a person may develop symptoms of PTSD. (Kolk, 2014)

While we are resilient beings and tend to rebound from disastrous events and betrayal in our lives, trauma can leave traces of brokenness throughout history, culture, families, and generations. The effects of trauma are diversified and often hidden from our consciousness. It can affect the mind and emotions; the biology and immune system of the body; and in relationships, making it difficult to establish, trusting healthy relationships as an adult. (Kolk, 2014)

Overall, it is very hard to define trauma into a simple term. According to Levine (1997), he states that “trauma represents animal instincts gone awry.” (p.32) Levine describes the scene of how trauma affects the body within his book Waking the Tiger. Levine opens with a scene of a predator hunting a young impala. As the impala is running away from its impending death, it has an instinct to freeze and play dead, even if it is not injured or dead. Physiologists consider this to be called the “freeze” response. The other two responses are fight and flight. (Levine, 1997)

“When animals or humans are faced with what is perceived as an inescapable or overwhelming threat”, they use these responses of flight, or fight, but mostly frozen. These reactions are involuntary. (Levine, 1997, p. 17) If the impala is lucky to not be eaten or killed by its predator, the impala gets up and “discharges all the energy mobilized to negotiate the threat” by shaking it out of its body. If the prey does not release this energy, it will become a victim of trauma. (Levine, 1997, p. 19)

“The symptoms of trauma are not caused by a triggering event, but stems from the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved or discharged; this residue remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on the body and spirit.” (Levine, 1997, p. 19) This residual energy does not simply go away. It persists in the body, often forming long term, horrifying, debilitating, and unpredictable symptoms of PTSD. These symptoms are the survivors' way of containing the undischarged residual energy. Wild animals instinctively discharge their compressed trauma energy, however, humans do not, therefore they become victims of trauma. (Levine, 1997) Levine, (1997) also believes that the solution lies in knowing how to heal trauma by understanding “that traumatic symptoms are physiological as well as psychological.” (p. 32)

Continue reading onto Part 2 Trauma Effects.

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