What is Trauma?

Trauma is different from a bad experience. It is an event that is so sudden, horrifying, and unexpected that it overwhelms our mind and body. This affects how we understand and remember the events, and how we later react to reminders of what happened. In short, our usual coping mechanisms don ’t work.

The Brain on Trauma

Trauma prevents the brain from taking in and organizing events into a story with a beginning, middle and end. Instead, our memory is fragmented; many of the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations remain exactly as when we went through it. Other parts of the event are pushed aside or are distorted. For example, if we are robbed, we may remember every detail of the gun in our face and even the smell of the oil on it, but not be able to recall anything about the robber’s face. Or, we may recall the gun as being far bigger than we later learn that it was.

Time can be distorted, too. A car accident that occurred in 20 seconds may feel like it lasted for 5 minutes.


When the trauma story is unfinished, the brain keeps trying to put it all together and find
An ending. Symptoms result from repeated effort to answer the question, “What happened and what does it mean about me?”As long as the trauma is not a complete story that can be put in the past where it belongs, the body and mind continue to experience what happened as if it is STILL happening. We remain vigilant for danger, we try to avoid things that remind us of what happened, and we feel different than and disconnected from others. Some of the most common symptoms of trauma include:

Nightmares, which are a way of reliving the trauma; they are vivid and very difficult to shake off

Difficulty falling or staying asleep

Physical pain, such as muscle tension, headaches, fatigue,, tightness in chest, stomach and digestive problems, and breathing difficulties

Flashbacks when awake, in which vivid memories come from nowhere and hijack daily activities; these can be images, emotions (such as fear and panic), body sensations, or thoughts that won ’t go away

Phobias and paranoia come from being chronically alert for possible danger, even when the fear is irrational

Withdrawal from family, friends, and activities that used to be fun

Risky behavior that produces an adrenalin rush, such as gambling, extreme sports, fast cars and motorcycles, shop lifting, or volatile relationships

Avoidance of anything may be reminiscent of the trauma, including people, places, activities, conversations; e.g. avoiding one ’s own children because their high-pitched voices sound like incoming mortars

Loss of treasured beliefs and ideals, such as the notion that people are fundamentally good and trust worthy

The inability to feel a full range of emotions, such as happiness, gratification, delight, humor, appropriate annoyance or anger; nothing seems worthwhile

Hyperarousal, which causes constant scanning for potential danger, and hyper startle reactions to mild or neutral stimuli, like a door slamming

Irritability, which is related to hyperarousal

Inability to concentrate on and comprehend information


Nervous behaviors, such as tapping, rocking, nail biting, hair pulling, picking at skin; feeling as if one could jump out of my skin

Guilt and shame about how one did or didn’t respond during the traumatic event, for surviving when others didn’t, or for being

given accolades that feel undeserved


Preoccupation with the trauma: repetitively telling the story, bringing conversations back to the trauma, using trauma as a point of reference, being unable to move forward from trauma; this has the effect of time stopping at the point of the trauma; for example, keeping photographs, newspaper articles, items relating to trauma prominently displayed or on one ’s person

Self-medication: excessive or compulsive use of alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, computers spending, or any other activity that numbs and distracts one from feeling the pain and confusion of traumatic memories

Negative beliefs about oneself and others

Chatter inside one ’s head: monologues, arguments, repetitive thoughts and statements

Fantasies about how the events could have been changed or averted

A sense that one is irretrievably damaged or broken

Healing Trauma

Traumatic conditions are now treatable and even curable, especially if addressed quickly.

There are three phases of treatment: Safety, stabilization and integration.

Making sure that the person is in a safe, structured environment where all basic needs are met and a compassionate support network is in place

Sobriety, in which self-medication is addressed

Self-rescue refers to tools for reversing flashbacks and panic are learned and practiced

Self-soothing encompasses tools to calm oneself down and maintain internal well being

Self-care involves healthy rhythms of sleep, eating, health care, exercise, hobbies, and friendships

Mild medication such as a beta blocker may be used to regulate the nervous system


This involves retrieving dissociated memories to create a complete, linear narrative of
what happened. The least effective type of treatment is talk therapy because trauma is largely recorded nonverbally. Effective trauma therapy ensures that the person does not relive
the events mentally or emotionally, and includes tools such as guided imagery and art, followed by externalized dialogue to stop the
monkey mind of PTSD.

Reconnection: Completing the Circle

Once the story is complete, trauma survivors are able to make meaning of their experiences.

Trauma ceases to define the individual and instead becomes a narrative from which to learn. It is at this point that survivors begin to once again see themselves as part of a larger community and look for ways to help others who have had similar experiences.
Trauma usually occurs in the context of relationships and likewise is healed through relationships.
Repairing trauma is completing the hero ’s journey, which is marked by contributing to others the wisdom gained.
Many helping organizations are formed through the effort to reconnect:

Vietnam Veterans against the War; Mothers Against Drunk Driving; Compassionate Friends,
Truth and Reconciliation Commission, all emerged from trauma.

Individuals, too, transform traumatic experiences into meaningful pursuits. Many poets, film makers, musicians, helping professionals and others are motivated by their own stories of triumph over adversity. Each person ’s story matters and can be a candle on the path for others. If you or someone you know suffers from traumatic s tress, contact:

Lee Norton, PhD, MSW, LCSW at Center for Trauma Therapy