Understanding Trauma and Free Trauma Recovery Group


What is Trauma?

By Loretta Grieve, LSW

Traumatic events are events that cause or threaten to cause physical, emotional, and psychological harm.  They include rape, child abuse, battering, and other threats to one’s life and/or physical or emotional integrity.  They may also include natural disasters, accidents, death, loss, injury, illness, crime, domestic terrorism, or wartime experiences.  Traumatic events overwhelm a person’s coping capacities and result in feeling out of control and experiencing intense fear and helplessness.

The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.  People who have survived atrocities often tell their stories in a highly emotional, contradictory, and fragmented manner which undermines their credibility and thereby serves the twin imperatives of truth-telling and secrecy.  When the truth is finally recognized, survivors can begin their recovery.  But far too often secrecy prevails, and the story of the traumatic event surfaces not as a verbal narrative but as a symptom (Herman Judith, 1992, Trauma and Recovery).

Every individual experience trauma differently and what may be a traumatic experience for one may not be for another.  One person may live through a natural disaster such as a hurricane and not develop trauma but his neighbor who experiences the same hurricane may be traumatized.  The impact of traumatic events depends to some degree on the resilience of the affected person. 

To understand how a traumatic event can cause emotional and physical reactions it is necessary to take a short biology lesson.  A traumatic experience causes your brain to trigger a sensor in your limbic system called the amygdala. The amygdala begins interpreting the images you are seeing and sounds you are hearing and determines whether you’re in danger. When it senses you are in danger, it sends a signal to the hypothalamus which communicates to the rest of your body through your nervous system.  It activates your sympathetic nervous system by sending a signal to your adrenals to pump out epinephrine (known as adrenaline). This is known as your body’s fight-or-flight response which is the body’s survival mechanism.  When this happens, you will often experience rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure, rapid breathing, sweating, and a burst of energy meant to get you out of danger. More oxygen is sent to your brain in order to increase alertness and a number of other changes happen throughout your body, so you’re primed to essentially fight or run.   Fight or flight is a basic survival instinct that all people share.  As epinephrine (or adrenaline) diminishes, the hypothalamus activates your HPA axis which consists of the hypothalamus, adrenals, and pituitary gland. If your brain still perceives a threat, it triggers the release of the hormones CRH and ACTH which then prompt your adrenal gland to release cortisol.  Cortisol keeps your body on high alert until the threat passes and then it subsides.

The challenge comes when the stressful situation is still perceived even though it is no longer present, and the body continues to produce cortisol. It is cortisol that contributes to health problems, including inflammation and weight gain.  In a traumatized brain, cognitive processing and emotional regulation are often weakened and the fear center of the brain (the amygdala) is overstimulated. Therefore many individuals who have experienced trauma can find themselves in a constant state of fear.

What Are the Symptoms of Trauma?

An individual does not have to experience the trauma directly to be affected.  Eyewitnesses, loved ones and caregivers can be affected as a result of having seen or heard about frightening and/or incomprehensible violence.  Although each person reacts differently according to his or her personality, past experiences, connection to the event, the response of others, and the meaning given to the event there are common feelings and reactions that frequently occur after a person has been involved in or witnessed a traumatic or violent event(s). 

Fear and Anxiety - Following a traumatic experience, fear and anxiety are a sign that your nervous system is doing its job. If these emotions do not subside, however, and are prolonged, impacting your daily tasks and ability to function, this is when it becomes a problem.

Anger - You might be angry at the person or event that caused your trauma. You may also find yourself snapping at individuals you care about who have nothing to do with your trauma. Anger is a normal response to trauma but needs to be regulated so it does not cause you or others additional harm.

Avoidance - Rather than processing the event and the feelings associated with it, you may find yourself avoiding the person or event and avoiding talking about it altogether. Processing is a necessary part of healing from trauma so try to work through your emotions or find a trusted support person you can talk to.

Flashbacks - Flashbacks occur when you remember the event and feel as if you’re experiencing it all over again. These can be troubling and often very emotional.

Nightmares - While a person may dream about the traumatic experience, he or she may also dream about other dangerous events that drum up similar feelings of fear, panic, and anxiety.

Constant Fear - A person may be consumed with fear and begin to see the world as an extremely unsafe place. He or she might be oversensitive to danger and hyperaware. Over time, this fear should dissipate as an individual begins to see things other than danger and harm, such as beauty, kindness, and love that are evident in life.

Sleep Disruptions - Because an individual might often have nightmares or be afraid to go to sleep, he or she may suffer from sleep disruptions and a lack of concentration or edginess because of this.

Blame, Guilt, or Shame - Following a trauma, an individual might feel guilty. A person may feel like he or she is to blame for the trauma. He or she might ask: why wasn’t I more careful or why did I get involved with him in the first place? This is often normal and should be worked through to redirect those feelings of blame, guilt, or shame.

Sadness - Sadness is a very normal response to trauma and crying actually involves the parasympathetic nervous system and is one of the body’s ways to calm the body and mind.

Difficulty Trusting Others - If another person is the cause of trauma, a person may find it difficult to trust others again. He or she may become very skeptical and critical. This is where processing the trauma and assessing the differences between the person who caused harm and other people who are worthy of trust can be very helpful.

Loss of Interest -   Following trauma, an individual may lose interest in social activities, physical intimacy, hobbies, and other activities he or she once enjoyed.

Self-Criticism and Feelings of Inadequacy- An individual may become extremely self-critical and feel inadequate following the trauma. He or she may wonder things like: why am I so impacted by this or why can’t I get over this?   

Women and girls are most likely to be victims of crimes of interpersonal violence such as rape, sexual abuse, and battering; the perpetrators are most likely to be men.  The majority of women who experience violence are abused by the people closest to them-intimate partners, family members, and other trusted people in their daily environment.  In the lives of many women, violence is a pervasive, tenacious, and frequently occurring event.  This is a worldwide phenomenon that crosses the lines of race, ethnicity, nationality and national origin, class, religion, age, and sexual orientation (Michaela Mendelsohn, 2011, The Trauma Recovery Group). 

J.L. Herman, Trauma and Recovery, (Basic books 1997)

M. Mendelsohn, J. Herman, E. Schatzow, M. Coco, D. Kallivayalil, J. Levitan, The Trauma Recovery Group (The Guilford Press 2011)


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