Trauma is a word we use in everyday language to describe everything from something
unpleasant like a dentist’s appointment to horrifying tragedies like abuse and crime. But there is a huge difference between things in life that stress and scare us and things that scar and mar us like crime. A dentist appointment might be painful, but its bearable. And once its over, its over. After the procedure, whatever happened is forgotten along with all the other unremarkable events of our life.
Trauma is different in that by nature it feels unbearable. During a traumatic event, people feel like they can’t handle what is happening to them. It feels overwhelming, so overwhelming that many times survivors have difficulty speaking about what happened. Unlike small stressors in life, many people don’t just forget and move on from trauma. Traumatic events challenge our very perception of the world and mold our self-perception. Often, people can find themselves reliving traumatic events or carrying beliefs and cognitions that allowed them to cope with their trauma years after the incident has passed.
When faced with a stressful event, we feel the urge to react quickly instead of
evaluating what the best thing to do is. Anxiety and fear activate brain regions associated with survival and deactivate brain regions associated with thinking and decision-making. Traumas are so terrifying that we panic in their presence, lose our ability to rationally process information, and our body reacts without our voluntary control. While this type of response is ideal in situations where our survival is at stake, it can be unhelpful in other traumatic situations and prevent the processing of what actually happened. Dissociation, which is a relatively common reaction to traumatic events, can be troubling for survivors. Why did I freeze instead of taking action? But they weren’t in control of their body. What actually happened can also be profoundly confusing for survivors. Due to the raw and unprocessed nature of such events, it can be natural to carry expectations from those events into the future instead of recognizing that the past is past. Unfortunately, such beliefs tend to prevent recovery and can lead to traumatization.
Perry, B. D., Pollard, R. A., Blakley, T. L., Baker, W. L., & Vigilante, D. (1995). Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation, and “use-dependent” development of the brain: How “states” become “traits.” Infant Mental Health Journal, 16(4), 271–291. https://doi.org/10.1002/1097-0355(199524)16:4<271::AID-IMHJ2280160404>3.0.CO;2-B