Understanding the Nature of Trauma and PTSD

Unfortunately, traumatic experiences are a relatively com-mon event. Current estimates are that as many as 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetimes. Given the number of veterans who have experienced combat, the frequency and intensity of recent natural disasters, and the tragedies associated with the recent events in Boston and Newtown, these numbers are not surprising.

While anyone can experience trauma, not all people perceive traumatic events in the same way. Some are able to manage these events relatively well, while others experience significant distress as the result of traumatic events. It is currently estimated that as many as 20% of people that experience a traumatic event will develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Some estimates are even higher (between 30 and 60%) for those who have experienced a disaster, such as a hurricane, industrial accident, or a terror attack. In addition, between 5 to 20% of rescue workers of these events tend to experience PTSD within a year of the traumatic event.

Trauma and Memory

Trauma from an event is so stressful that it overwhelms our normal coping mechanisms. As a result, thoughts and feelings that occurred during the trauma can get anchored internally and cause us to think in distorted ways. For example, you might see a burning building and naturally think “I have to get everyone out of the building”. If, however, you are unsuccessful, the thought might become “people were hurt because I wasn’t able to get everyone out.” Clearly, you didn’t cause the building to burn, yet because of the overwhelming nature of the traumatic event, you might begin to feel guilty and responsible for the losses that occurred.

Research indicates that traumatic events tend to be encoded within the limbic system of the brain, which primarily processes emotions and sensations, rather than language or speech. As a result, people who experience trauma often don’t have the words to describe their experiences. Unfortunately, if they can’t put into words their experiences, it may lead to PTSD.

Treatment Helps

Therapy can be very effective in helping individuals’ overcome the effects of trauma in their lives. During therapy, individuals are able to work through the memories of the trauma and diminish the intensity of the emotions and thoughts that may have become “frozen in time.” Therapy often helps individuals find the words for their experiences. This allows them to engage the cognitive portions of the brain, which is generally responsible for language and reasoning. The more we can make sense of the trauma the more we are able to overcome its after-effects.

Flashbacks and Body Memories

Many people with PTSD report re-experiencing extreme thoughts, feelings, or body sensations when they have “flashbacks” or “pictures” that they can’t get out of their head. These “flashbacks” might get “triggered” by anything that reminds them of the traumatic event. When triggered, a person with PTSD may experience these sensations or memories with the same level of intensity that occurred during the original trauma. As a result, the intensity of their reactions may not match the current situation that they are in. This can obviously have a significant negative impact on a person’s ability to thrive in intimate, social or work relationships.

In addition, sometimes the thoughts, feelings and body sensations become disconnected from the “pictures” that are associated with the trauma. As a result, a person with PTSD may get “triggered”, but not initially realize it. For example, a sexual abuse survivor that begins an intimate relationship might begin to feel like their skin is crawling, or that they are “dirty” and that no one would want them. These feelings are often directly related to the past trauma, but may not be immediately obvious because of the disconnect between the thoughts, feelings, and “pictures”.

This disconnect can be overcome by working through the trauma, learning to identify the triggers, and developing strategies to be less affected by the triggers.