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Understanding trauma – What is it, how does it affect us and why does it matter?

Updated: May 19, 2022

Trauma is not a story, it’s not a memory – trauma can be viewed as changes to our neurobiology, to the wiring of our brain. Typically, trauma is described as a very frightening and/or distressing event such as an accident, an act of abuse, war, or natural disaster. Leading researcher in the trauma field Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk often adds that trauma is any event or situation that leaves us in a state of terror and has us thinking “oh my god.” Dr Bruce Perry, another researcher differentiates between trauma experiences. He explains that we can experience capital “T” traumas, like those described previously and we can experience little “T” traumas, these often being less typical events. It might be the experience of being left out at school or work because you don’t look a certain way, maybe you’re not the right shape, gender, or colour to fit in. This can lead to feeling socially isolated. These experiences can change the way our brain is wired, just like the capital “T” traumas do.

What happens in the brain?

Most of our brain, particularly the back of our brain, is designed purely for survival and to support our bodily functioning in our environment. This primitive part of the brain ensures that we breathe, eat when we are hungry, sleep when we are tired, and use the bathroom when we need to. It is also where our threat detection system is housed, this being imperative in keeping us safe. Importantly, there is no cognition or thought in this part of the brain and we are not directly in control of our primitive brain. This part of the brain is however in control of our body and our nervous system. The survival part of the brain is like that of a dog or cat. We can think of the back part of the brain as the “engine.” However, unlike dogs and cats, humans have a more evolved section of the brain, at the front called the frontal lobe. This is like our “controller”. It explains and understands what we do. It can think, problem solve and be rational when activated. The problem with trauma experiences however is they store in the back of the brain, in the engine. When activated this part of the brain can become so powerful that it can highjack the controller, to the point where the controller is no longer steering the ship.

Trauma that occurs in childhood

We know that when capital “T” or little “T” traumas occur in childhood, this can have a very devastating impact on the persons long-term mental and physical wellbeing. We know from the research that these experiences in childhood begin to imprint as patterns in the “engine part” of our brain. This can lead to us experiencing an ongoing state of being hyperalert to stress. Our attention becomes drawn to a perceived threat, it’s like our nervous system and body are always stuck in “worry gear.” It can impact our belief system and lead to views such as “the world is not safe,” “people are not safe,” and “I’m not safe.” Trauma often activates bigger emotional responses, and ongoing feelings of being overwhelmed and can lead to ways of coping such as emotional numbing, drinking, or substance use.

We also know from the research that if we have a parent who has also experienced trauma then this can be passed down through our genes. Intergenerational trauma can lead to a person having trauma passed down or inbuilt in their biology.

What impact does trauma have?

When we experience adverse experiences in childhood, leading to chronic activation of our threat response system, this can impact our biology. This can start to impact on our immune system’s ability to function. We know that trauma is highly correlated to auto-immune disease. We also know that high levels of the stress response hormone in our body can lead to an increase in inflammatory markers in our body which can lead to chronic health conditions. Did you know, that if you have experienced adverse events in childhood that you are more likely to:

1. Develop a chronic health condition like heart disease, stroke, COPD, diabetes and obesity.

2. Have a mental health condition like depression.

3. Engage in health risk behaviours such as drinking, using substances, risky sexual behaviours and/or experiencing suicidal thoughts and behaviour.

4. Have poorer social outcomes such as: having less than a high school equivalent education and a lack of health insurance.

What if I’ve experienced trauma, is there anything I can do about it?

You can absolutely work through, heal and break free from trauma. Understanding what’s happened to you is the first step along the healing road. Accessing good psychological support can help you to develop effective ways of calming your nervous system. It can also support you to process what has happened - by rewiring and reprograming your brain and can help you to develop more effective ways of regulating your emotions and behaviour. Psychological support can also help you to lessen the longer-term impacts of trauma and can reduce your risk of experiencing further adverse experiences, by supporting you to develop more effective relationship skills, help you to connect with healthy support networks and can help you to harness the post-traumatic growth and resilience you may have developed.

Want to know more?

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. 

Perry, B. D., & Winfrey, O. (2021). What happened to you?: Conversations on trauma, resilience, and healing.

Felliti, V. J., et al. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 14, 245-258. - For a summary of the ACE study and related data.

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