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What is trauma and what are the symptoms: The Trauma Guide

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

Have you experienced trauma or PTSD?

What is trauma? Our bodies are designed ebb and flow with the stresses and joys of life, our nervous system breathing in and out on a daily basis. Moments of vulnerability are experienced as expansion; allowing ourselves to feel, among other things, joyful and excited. We also naturally experience contraction throughout the day. Feeling tired, needing to rest and digest our food. Contraction can also be experienced as feeling a little withdrawn, anxious, depressed and generally shut down. We are able to feel these things because our system is made for balance. Without expansion we couldn’t get up in the morning and face our work colleagues, make plans for the day or engage in social conversation. Without contraction, or rest, we would be in a heightened state of activation which the body cannot sustain safely. When someone experiences trauma, this balance is upset. A trauma is something that is too much and that comes at us too fast, giving us no time to respond appropriately. In these cases the body’s protective mechanisms activate. fight or flight. Fight or flight can be described as putting your foot on the accelerator of a car. Fuel is injected into your engine to give you the capacity to fight or to run. If neither of those things is possible, you’re trapped emotionally or physically, the body has a third defence: Shut down/freeze/collapse.

We see this in animals who have been caught by predators. Where fighting and fleeing have failed, the last defence available is to collapse. This serves two purposes. First, it’s an attempt to convince the predator that it is dead and not worth eating. The other is, in the event of being eaten, the animal feels nothing.

When the system is overwhelmed over a long period of time, it is like putting your foot on the accelerator and the brake at the same time. The car doesn’t move anyway, but the engine eventually breaks.

Some Examples of Trauma

  • Remember: Trauma is anything that overwhelms the nervous system, the effects of which are partly dependent one’s past experiences. This is, therefore, not an exhaustive or definitive list.

Sexual abuse – experienced or witnessed Sexual assault – experienced or witnessed

Domestic violence – experienced or witnessed Emotional abuse – experienced or witnessed Parental rejection

School or adult bullying Neglect – Emotional or physical

Bereavement Medical procedures Accidents Post Suicide Attempt Trauma

Birth trauma (for mother or child) Chronic or sudden illness Natural Disasters Witnesses the trauma of others Terrorism Military Combat Racism Forcible removal from family eg. In the case of foster children What is the difference between PTSD, C-PTSD and Developmental Trauma?

  • PTSD can be, but is not always, the result of a single event trauma.

  • Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) is more likely to occur when people experience ongoing traumatisation or multiple separate and unresolved traumas.

  • Developmental trauma doesn’t just refer to the timing of the trauma (ie. in childhood) but also to the fact that it occurs over a period of time in the context of a close relationship.

PTSD is a result of trauma. A traumatic experience does not always result in PTSD. Levels of resilience (or past experiences), the length of time exposed to the traumatic event(s) and the way that the trauma is processed after the experience are all factors in whether or not someone will experience symptoms of PTSD. Trauma Symptoms Post Traumatic Stress symptoms It is important to note that this is not a diagnostic list. PTSD diagnosis is scored rather than being a check list of symptoms. Speak to a trauma counsellor or psychotherapist to determine whether or not symptoms you are experiencing may be the result of PTSD.

  • Flashbacks - reliving the traumatic event, and feeling like it happening right now including physical symptoms such as a racing heart or sweating

  • Reoccurring memories or nightmares related to the event

  • Distressing and intrusive thoughts or images

  • Physical sensations like sweating, trembling, pain or feeling sick.

  • Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience

  • Feeling that you need to keep yourself busy all the time

  • Using alcohol or drugs to avoid memories

  • Feeling emotionally numb or cut off from your feelings or other people

  • Feeling numb or detached from your body

  • Being unable to remember details of the trauma

  • Having strong physical reactions to reminders of an event

  • Trouble falling or staying asleep

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Irritable or angry behaviour

  • Taking unusual risks

  • Trouble feeling positive feelings towards loved ones

If you feel you may have C-PTSD symptoms may include some of the above but might also include:

  • constant issues with keeping a relationship,

  • finding it difficult to feel connected to other people,

  • constant belief that you are worthless with deep feelings of shame and guilt

  • constant and severe emotional dysregulation (you find it difficult to control your emotions).

  • Feelings of shame and guilt

  • Difficulty controlling emotions

Developmental Trauma symptoms The symptoms for developmental trauma in children are extensive and won’t be listed here. If you are an adult and you believe that you have experience developmental trauma, look at the symptoms of PTSD and C-PTSD. Symptoms may also include:

· Deep seated shame

· Powerlessness

· Hopelessness and despair

· Hyper vigilance or inexplicable fear

· Emotional dysregulation

· Feelings of isolation

· Lack of a sense of self

· Self esteem and self worth issues

What about Secondary Traumatic Stress?

Secondary traumatic stress shows up in much the same way as PTSD for people who have not even experienced a trauma directly. Exposure to someone else’s trauma can be a trigger for symptoms similar to that of PTSD. Paramedics, doctors, social workers and police officers are some of the professions likely to experience STS, but it is not limited to professionals. Family members and close friends of a victim can be exposed to traumatic material just by listening to the story, living closely with, or caring for that person.

How Somatic Therapy can help If trauma is ‘too much’ and ‘too fast’ it would stand to reason that a good therapeutic approach to undo this would be to slow down and take things bit by bit. This is how somatic experiencing works. By becoming aware of sensations in the body as they happen, we can help the body to process, little by little, those sensations or experiences that came at us too quickly to properly respond. By allowing space where there was none before, choice where none was available, and being an empathic witness where perhaps none was available, somatic experiencing can help the body and mind to recover from the traumas of the past.


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