Understanding Trauma and PTSD 

Although PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) is a condition typically associated with returning military personnel, it is important to recognize that many of us suffer from the impact of trauma, whether or not we realize it or know where it originated.

Understanding trauma

Trauma can occur through any situation that threatens our safety or sense of integrity. If we have ever been caused to feel intense humiliation, fear or powerlessness, we have experienced a traumatic event.

The most obvious trauma-originating situations include being involved in (or witnessing) an incident like a mugging or car-crash where we are powerless to protect ourselves or somebody else. Secondary trauma occurs through hearing the traumatic story of another person and being unable to get it out of our head.

The vast majority of trauma, however, occurs during childhood when we do not have the voice, the choice or the power to intervene in whatever situation we find ourselves – be it an abusive, alcoholic or otherwise shaming family system, being bullied at school or being forced to suffer painful medical and dental procedures without the necessary information, understanding or support.

As we undergo a traumatic experience, our brains remember the cues – such as sounds, smells, images or sensations – associated with the event that harmed, shamed, threatened or frightened us.

If a similar cue is ever experienced in the future, the higher cognitive and emotional functions of the brain automatically shut down to enable the most primitive, instinctive part of the brain to take over and cause us to fight, flee or freeze and so avoid being harmed again.

Frequently, however, the brain may over-react to the cues it believes are harmful, causing us to behave in ways that are out of proportion or unnecessary in the current situation. This, in a nutshell, is a traumatic reaction.

Traumatic reactions can be debilitating and lifelong.

They can keep us from being intimate in relationships. They can develop into phobias that keep us from visiting the dentist, seeking the medical help we need or from driving in certain conditions or on specific roads.

They can cause us to explode angrily towards a spouse, a co-worker or a boss who might have tripped our shame-wire. They can cause us to feel fuzzy in the head with an overwhelming urge to run.

They can manifest in dissociative flashbacks and nightmares that prevent us from sleeping or even having an idle moment. They can reduce us to a state of perpetual vigilance or anxiety, rendering us incapable of relaxing or enjoying life.

The good news is that the impact of PTSD and other trauma does not need to be permanent. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) is an empirically validated therapy that can help reprocess traumatic memories, taking away our flashbacks, nightmares and unexpected body sensations, allowing us to live in the present.