Trauma Explained

We hear a lot about trauma these days, especially around the recent discoveries of widespread sexual abuse of children in various religious and care institutions. Many adults are coming forward to tell their story of sexual, physical and emotional abuse. One thing that almost all of them say is that not only was the abuse itself extremely distressing, but that the negative results have stayed with them for a lifetime. This is validated by the fact that survivors of childhood abuse actually suffer more psychological and physical illnesses than those who have not been traumatised. 
So we see that we can be traumatised by one or a number of events, and that the wounds can linger long after the original event.

There are two conditions that must occur together to create trauma:

  • being involved in a life threatening event
  • feeling completely alone in that event

It’s important to understand that an event may or may not appear life threatening from the outside. What matters is that the person involved literally fears that their life is in danger. And in the midst of this terror for their life, there is no-one to rescue, protect or understand them. This creates enormous fear. It sends the adrenals into overdrive, pumping out adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are designed to give us the energy to get out of harm’s way by fighting or fleeing. 

If we are actually able to do either or both, we often escape being permanently traumatised by the life threatening event. 
But what often happens is that fight or flight is not possible, and instead we freeze, which is the third instinctual response to a threat to our life.

This freezing strategy makes sense when we consider that a predator may lose interest in ‘dead’ prey, walk away, and inflict less damage. One thing abuse survivors often say is that they did not fight back because they believed that it would have made the abuse worse, which can certainly happen. It is well known that when women flee an abusive relationship, it is more likely that the abuse will increase significantly around that time. 
So what typically happens when we are involved in a traumatic event is that we are left with an overload of adrenal hormones and no way to physically release that energy. This intense energy becomes trapped in our body, and the condition becomes permanent. Because we are left with so much fear that the trauma could reoccur at any moment, the adrenals do not go back to baseline levels, as they normally would. The freezing does not let up either, because it has been so deeply imprinted on us as a way to deal with the fear. 
So the traumatised person spends a lifetime stuck between two very powerful opposing forces, the force of the adrenal hormones and the opposing imperative to stay frozen. Needless to say, this is very hard on the body and psyche. It leads to physical symptoms such as metabolic syndrome, autoimmune disease, and adrenal fatigue, along with many psychological symptoms such as chronic fearfulness, anger and depression.