Traumatizing experiences shake the foundations of our beliefs about safety, and shatter our assumptions of trust.
Because they are so far outside what we would expect, these events provoke reactions that feel strange and “crazy”. Perhaps the most helpful thing I can say here is that even though these reactions are unusual and disturbing, they are typical and expectable. By and large, these are normal responses to abnormal events.
Trauma symptoms are probably adaptive, and originally evolved to help us recognize and avoid other dangerous situations quickly — before it was too late. Sometimes these symptoms resolve within a few days or weeks of a disturbing experience: Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD. It is when many symptoms persist for weeks or months, or when they are extreme, that professional help may be indicated. On the other hand, if symptoms persist for several months without treatment, then avoidance can become the best available method to cope with the trauma — and this strategy interferes with seeking professional help. Postponing needed intervention for a year or more, and allowing avoidance defenses to develop, could make this work much more difficult.
We create meaning out of the context in which events occur. Consequently, there is always a strong subjective component in people’s responses to traumatic events. This can be seen most clearly in disasters, where a broad cross-section of the population is exposed to objectively the same traumatic experience. Some of the individual differences in susceptibility to PTSD following trauma probably stem from temperament, others from prior history and its effect on this subjectivity.
the foundations of our beliefs
about safety, and shatter our
assumptions of trust
In the “purest” sense, trauma involves exposure to a life-threatening experience. This fits with its phylogenetic roots in life-or-death issues of survival, and with the involvement of older brain structures (e.g., reptilian or limbic system) in responses to stress and terror. Yet, many individuals exposed to violations by people or institutions they must depend on or trust also show PTSD-like symptoms — even if their abuse was not directly life-threatening. Although the mechanisms of this connection to traumatic symptoms are not well understood, it appears that betrayal by someone on whom you depend for survival (as a child on a parent) may produce consequences similar to those from more obviously life-threatening traumas. Examples include some physically or sexually abused children as well as Vietnam veterans, but monkeys also show a sense of fairness, so our sensitivity to betrayal may not be limited to humans. Experience of betrayal trauma may increase the likelihood of psychogenic amnesia, as compared to fear-based trauma. Forgetting may help maintain necessary attachments (e.g., during childhood), improving chances for survival; if so, this has far-reaching theoretical implications for psychological research. Of course, some traumas include elements of betrayal and fear; perhaps all involve feelings of helplessness.
- Emotional and Psychological Trauma
- Nice explanation of the causes, symptoms, effects, & treatments of psychological or emotional trauma — broader than PTSD.
- Information on the Threat Response
- Detailed and well-done article on responses to threat, by Eric Wolterstorff.
- APA Topics: Trauma
- American Psychological Association webpage offers information on emotional trauma.
- Facts for Health: PTSD
- “The intensity of experiencing a life-threatening trauma can take time to subside. For some, it simply never does…”