What is trauma?

Too much and too quick: Traumatic stress and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

We mostly know trauma as the effect of a single life threatening event. Traumatic events can be for example an violent assault, natural disaster, an accident, war, surgery.  

In single event trauma there was too much happening in too short a time, leading to overwhelming feelings of helplessness, loss of control, fear and horror. 

Most people after experiencing a traumatic event will feel a stress reaction or reactions in their body and mind. They might feel things like being tired, nauseous, tense, scared, restless, restless, hyper-vigilant, shaky, emotional, confused. This is normal and our bodies way to deal with overwhelm. 

For some people these stress responses to a traumatic event continue over a longer period of time, while others return back to normal fairly quickly. Prolonged traumatic stress is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The nervous system of people suffering from PTSD is frozen in time, making it impossible for the person to move forward with his or her life. It is as if the event it still happening and the body is stuck in survival mode.  

Too little for too long: Developmental and Complex Trauma

Another form of trauma is lesser known. It has had several different names but it currently best known as Developmental Trauma, Complex Trauma or Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

This kind of trauma can be described as too little for too long, as it refers to long term neglect or abuse by parents, care-givers, teachers, or in interpersonal relationships. Systematic  oppression can also be the cause of Complex Trauma, like poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious and political persecution.

Not receiving enough care, love, attention when growing up, not feeling safe and protected, and/or not being looked after with food, clothing and medical care can lead to attachment and trust issues. Emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse by people that are also care givers or partners is another cause of Complex trauma. 

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study found that increased exposure to neglect and abuse in childhood was strongly associated with increased risk for physical and mental health challenges in adulthood. The more categories of adverse childhood experiences a person experienced, the greater the likelihood of adult disease including heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease. Persons that had higher scores on the ACE questionnaire also more often reported suffering from depression, anxiety, self-harm, substance use, or interpersonal challenges.

As Complex trauma often leads to a range of physical and/or mental health issues, people suffering of Complex Trauma are often being diagnosed with multiple conditions like bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, anxiety disorder, depression, OCD, and ADHD. 

Not recognizing a Complex Trauma history as the underlying cause of the diverse symptoms of a person can lead to stigmatization, ineffective meditation, and the person believing that there is something wrong with them that cannot be reversed, instead of the focus being on working with what happened to them. 

More awareness of and better treatment options for Complex Trauma are so important to support people who have survived so much suffering to feel safe, to integrate their experiences, heal themselves and thrive.