The word trauma has been gaining notoriety and used frequently in the news and daily conversations. But what is trauma?
It is common for people to think of the “big” traumas. Abuse. Rape. Neglect. Combat. However, there is more to trauma that often is overlooked. Trauma is anything that rocks your world and you have trouble getting past. For example, divorce. Some people go through a divorce unfazed and looking towards their next chapter in life. Others can be devastated by divorce and enter depression. Some other examples of trauma include, sudden moves, car accidents, death, loss of a job, and so on. There is no exhaustive list to what can be considered trauma, because it is an individual experience and depends on a person’s perception.
Each person processes interactions and events differently. If processed in a negative manner, the individual may engage in what is called the stress response cycle (i.e. the survival response). At the bare minimum, there are 3 levels to the stress response that occur in the brain.
Starting with the brainstem, which is referred to as the reptile brain because it is everything we have in common with a reptile. This portion of the brain is in charge of keeping us alive in terms of breathing, heart rate, etc., and our freeze response. So you know when someone jumps out from behind a door and you have a split second where you freeze before getting angry at the person or take off running? That moment is the freeze response. From there we travel up to the middle of our brain, referred to as the mammalian brain or emotional brain. Here lies our concentration, short-term memories, and our fight or flight response. So we freeze first, which gives us time to assess if we need to fight or flight.
While we are figuring out which survival route to take, the brainstem and emotional part of the brain shuts down our neocortex, also referred to as our thinking brain. The thinking brain is in charge of calming things down, long-term memory, judgement, and so on. The reason the brainstem and emotional brain shut down the thinking brain in times of stress and crisis are due to its slow response. Have you ever been driving and someone has tried to cut you off or narrowly misses you? Did you notice that you jerk the wheel or slam the brakes before visually noticing what’s going on with the car and thinking of colorful vocabulary for the other driver? The brainstem and emotional brain are the parts that jerk the wheel, while the thinking brain is our ability to have thoughts, words, and images for the event. The thinking brain is shut down because it responds too slowly to what is going on. These responses occur in mere milliseconds and generally outside our awareness if we’re not paying attention.
This system works well, except when things are dubbed traumatic (which depends on the person). The brainstem and emotional brain get stuck in a survival loop, not allowing the thinking brain to come back and do its job to calm everything down. We get stuck. Our systems think we need to survive. Those symptoms of irritability, feeling on edge, hypervigilance, detached, flashbacks, depression, anxiety can stem from our survival system running us haggard. Surviving all the time is exhausting and grates the system.
A study completed by Kaiser-Permanente on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) showed the long-term impact of trauma. The study focused on emotional abuse and neglect, physical abuse and neglect, divorce, a parent with mental health issues, incarcerated family members in the household, intimate partner violence, domestic violence, and substance abuse in the household occurring before the age of 18 years old.
The study found that the more of these experiences that occur in childhood, the greater the likelihood for substance abuse, mental health issues, cancer, broken bones, COPD, among others. What this means, the constant running of the stress response cycle, although great for survival in the moment and completely necessary, is damaging over time when left unchecked.
What does this mean for the survivor? An impact on quality of life, physical health, mental health, and social relationships (Kendall-Tackett, K. & Klest, B., 2009). It is common for survivors to experience insomnia or a greater need for sleep, loss of appetite or binge eating, social anxiety, self-critical thoughts, flashbacks, anger and irritability, depressive-like symptoms, panic attacks, feeling out of control, and the list can continue.
Not everyone with trauma has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Our experiences play out in our thoughts, actions, and lives differently. On outside appearances alone, one person may have a hard time leaving their home out of fear, while another is able to hold a job, but viewed as high strung. Those very people may be experiencing flashbacks, high anxiety, shortness of breath, and unwanted thoughts. So keep in mind. Even if you do not meet criteria for PTSD, your trauma and your experiences are valid. Your experiences just may be presented differently.
For more on how trauma and addiction are related, read our post Trauma Goes Hand In Hand With Addiction.
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Adverse Childhood Experiences. SAMHSA. https://www.samhsa.gov/capt/practicing-effective-prevention/prevention-behavioral-health/adverse-childhood-experiences
Kendall-Tackett, K. & Klest, B. (2009). Causal Mechanisms and Multidirectional Pathways Between Trauma, Dissociation, and Health. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 10:129–134, 2009. Doi: 10.1080/15299730802624510.