Psychic trauma occurs when a sudden, unexpected, overwhelming intense emotional blow or a series of blows assaults the person from outside. Traumatic events are external, but they quickly become incorporated into the mind. Trauma occurs when both internal and external resources are inadequate to cope with an external threat. It is not the trauma itself that does the damage, it is how the individual’s mind and body reacts in its own unique way to the traumatic experience. Trauma occurs whenever someone fears for their life or for the lives of someone they love. A traumatic experience impacts the entire person ‐ the way we think, the way we learn, the way we remember things, the way we feel about ourselves, the way we feel about other people, and the way we make sense of the world are all profoundly altered by a traumatic experience.
It is impossible to fully understand human behavior and the human response to
trauma without grasping key insights about the way our evolution has affected us. The fight‐or‐flight response is a part of our mammalian heritage, and continues to profoundly impact, at a physiological level, our response to all stresses, even those caused by our sophisticated social environments. We are born with a number of innate emotions that are also part of our mammalian heritage and that produce patterned and predictable responses in all of our organs, including our brain. This means that overwhelming emotions can do damage to our bodies as well as our psyches.
As a species, we survived largely because we developed as social animals for mutual protection and this social nature of human beings is grounded in our need to attach to other human beings from cradle to grave. Children who suffer disrupted attachments may suffer from damage to all of their developmental systems, including their brains and we are particularly ill-suited to having the people we are attached to also be the people who are violating us. Our very complex brains and powerful memories distinguish us as the most intelligent of all animals, and yet it is this very intelligence that leaves us vulnerable to the effects of trauma such as flashbacks, body memories, post traumatic nightmares and behavioral reenactments.
The social nature of our species is guaranteed by an innate sense of reciprocity that can be observed even among primates. But this same sense of “fair play” leads not only to the evolution of justice systems, but also to the need for revenge. The result is that you cannot hurt anyone, most importantly children, without setting the stage for revenge that will be exacted either upon themselves, upon others, or both. Finally, we are physiologically designed to function best as an integrated whole, just like the computers that we now build. The fragmentation that accompanies traumatic experience degrades this integration and impedes maximum performance in a variety of ways. Human brains function best when they are adequately stimulated but simultaneously protected from overwhelming stress. This explains our need for order, for safety, for adequate protection.
We are animals and like other animals, we are biologically equipped to protect ourselves from harm as best we can. The basic internal protective mechanism is called the fight‐or‐flight reaction. Whenever we perceive that we are in danger, our bodies make a massive response that affects all of our organ systems. This change in every area of basic function is so dramatic that in many ways, we are not the same people when we are terrified as when we are calm. Each episode of danger connects to every other episode of danger in our minds, so that the more danger we are exposed to, the more sensitive we are to danger. With each experience of fight‐or‐flight, our mind forms a network of connections that get triggered with every new threatening experience. If
children (or soldiers in combat) are exposed to danger repeatedly, their bodies become unusually sensitive so that even minor threats can trigger off this sequence of physical, emotional, and cognitive responses. They can do nothing to control this reaction ‐ it is a biological, built‐in response, a protective device that only goes wrong if we are exposed to too much danger and too little protection in childhood or as adults.
This may help explain why some people have developed PTSD and others have not. Anyone who has been exposed to enough life-threatening events can develop PTSD.
Please pass this on to others who may benefit and bookmark this site so you do not miss part II of “Understanding Trauma.”