Trauma can be caused by many things, from sexual abuse to a natural disaster. But at its essence, trauma is caused by anything that makes you feel completely unsafe and helpless. Trauma can range from minor to severe, and is characterized by flashbacks, or a feeling of disconnection from what happened.
Flashbacks are usually our brain’s attempts to rehash an event in order to make sense of what happened. Ideally, we review it until it’s less painful and we’ve found a way to make peace with it. However, unprocessed trauma can actually have the opposite effect, and instead we continue to have a heightened reaction. Disconnection, on the other hand, is a defense technique in which we withdraw. However, when memories and reactions are suppressed, they usually find a way to manifest themselves eventually.
Severe trauma can have far-reaching, long-term effects if it’s not resolved .
Trauma’s Effect on the Brain
Trauma triggers our parasympathetic response, also known as the fight-or-flight mechanism. This is a useful survival technique because it empowers us to react to extreme situations. PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder happens when this response is constantly triggered, even after the actual threat is gone. Trauma causes an increased response to subsequent stimuli, which means that our ability to deal with the normal stresses of life in an appropriate manner can be compromised. Obviously, this can be a big problem with interpersonal communication, personal motivation, and even the ability to set and meet goals.
While the parasympathetic response is useful in an emergency, when we experience it continuously and frequently, it actually makes changes to our brain development and behavior. Especially when trauma happens when we’re young, it can impede the development of other functions that are needed to be healthy and function in our modern world. Think about it: if your brain is constantly doing whatever it can to survive in an emergency scenario, it just doesn’t have the resources to build up other areas, like logic, planning, communication, and even emotional processing.
Trauma’s Effect on the Body
Unresolved trauma can also manifest itself in the body in surprising ways. It can cause body dysregulation, in which we overreact or under-react to stimuli like sound, sight, smell, and touch. You might become super sensitive to the cold, or, conversely, you might not be able to feel physical touch at the same level as other people do. In addition, many people who suffer from trauma as children that was never resolved have unidentifiable aches and pains without any apparent cause.
PTSD results in stress levels that snowball into numerous health conditions; things like high blood pressure, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and heart disease. There are also gastrointestinal problems associated with this. Inability to sleep through a full night can rob us of the strength that we need to counter disease and function healthily.
Trauma can also cause psychogenic non-epileptic seizures, or PNES. This is a hard thing to diagnose, since not much is known about it, and it lies in that shady area between neurology and psychology. It often occurs with people who don’t want to acknowledge psychological trauma.
There’s Hope for Healing
Reports on the dangers of unresolved trauma can be disheartening, but remember that it doesn’t have to be this way. Here at Grace House Children’s Project, we believe that victims of trauma can not only fully heal from their experiences, but they can learn to thrive and lead rich, healthy lives.