Trauma is a psychobiological reaction to a traumatic event that can include threat of safety including war, illness, car accidents, assault, kidnapping, and/or sexual/physical abuse. Complex trauma results from exposure to prolonged social and/or interpersonal trauma with lack or loss of control, disempowerment, and in the context of either captivity or entrapment, i.e. the lack of a viable escape route for the victim. It includes ongoing abuse, domestic violence, community violence, war, and genocide.
Trauma involves an emotional state of discomfort and stress shattering one’s sense of invulnerability to harm. It may include memories of an extraordinary, catastrophic experience, or sensorial fragments, which is as if it were happening now. Research shows that brain structures related to storing narratives in memory, time context, and the alarm in response to threat go offline during trauma. Raw sensorial data is stored in a fractured narrative that often leaves one confused and unable to integrate the event in way that allows normal fading of memories and processing of life experiences.
Stress is a nonspecific response of the body to any demand and can be a response to both positive and negative events such as weddings and divorces. Psychobiological stress reactions includes changes in heart rate, breathing, and digestion and reflexes of fight, flight, and freeze. Chronic stress can tax the system and result in adrenal stimulation and fatigue, shrinkage of lymphatic organs, gastrointestinal ulcers, and weight loss. A person’s internal and external resources (ability to cope, social support systems, etc.) and age can determine whether a particular event is experienced as traumatic or not. Not all traumatic events lead to trauma responses though many do. Clarification of Post-Traumatic Stress and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are differentiated below.
Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS)
•Traumatic stress not relieved through a successful fight/flight or by resolution of trauma by other natural or therapeutic means.
•May be characterized by chronic hyperarousal of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), flashbacks, and/or dissociation. Does not disrupt general functioning.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
•Traumatic stress resulting from traumatic event not relieved through working through or integration of trauma
•Sufficient severity to decrease a person’s ability to function in life
•Characterized by symptoms of ANS hyperarousal (including sleep disturbance, lack of concentration, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle and continued activation of fight, flight, freeze and/or dissociation.
–Acute (less than 3 months), chronic (3+ months), delayed onset (after 6 months)