What Are The Origins of Trauma?

Trauma is rooted in the body’s unfinished response to threat. When the body and mind become immobilised with fear and distress, the energy generated to fight off or flee from danger becomes frozen in our bodies. 

It remains stuck here, provoking over- or under-reactions to perceived threats until we thaw out the frozen reaction to this original fear. This allows the fight or flight energy to pass through, processing the associated feelings and emotions from a place of greater safety and containment. 

The Origin of Trauma

Trauma is derived from the Greek word for wound. Ideas of trauma have changed throughout human history, as our understanding of the psyche has changed, and psychology research has developed. Religion, spirituality and culture have also shaped our understanding of trauma and what is now referred to as Post Traumatic-Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Before the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder appeared in the DSM, combat veterans were said to have ‘shell shock’, ‘combat fatigue’ or ‘a thousand-yard stare.’ However, long before World War One, there is evidence of symptoms related to trauma. 

In the writings of Shakespeare, a character who would wake men through dreams of battle and death is an example of early documentation of flashbacks and triggers. ‘Railway spine’ was a nineteenth-century diagnosis for the post-traumatic symptoms of passengers involved in railroad accidents, and symptoms of hysteria and conversion disorder probably describe what we now know as nervous system dysregulation, which is the result of trauma.

What Causes Trauma?

To understand what causes trauma it is helpful first to know what process occurs within our bodies and minds to cause trauma, and then explore examples of situations that may result in PTSD.

The Body’s Response To Overwhelming Threat 

Trauma is an unfinished response in the body to an earlier overwhelming threat that made us feel unable to run away or to fight back. When we feel trapped and unable to prevail or escape, we enter a frozen state of immobilisation and vulnerability. You could say that fight or flight is a mobilised response to threat, and that freeze is an immobilised response to threat. 

Crucially, the sense of powerlessness – that there is no hope in fighting back, running away or appeasing – is subjective, and can vary from person to person. Situations that may appear escapable from the outside, can feel completely overwhelming to the person experiencing it, to the point that their body becomes literally frozen in fear.

During a traumatic experience, our brains and bodies go into survival mode which floods us with stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. The stress response that this triggers can be understood as having levels, first we move into the fight or flight reaction, where the body is readied for physical response, either to fight or get away. 

The pupils dilate, hearing becomes sharper, digestion slows, and more blood is sent to the large muscle groups. If we can use the energy generated by this reaction by fighting back or running away then we discharge it, feeling shaken, but less likely to be traumatised.

Conversely, in situations that we feel unable to escape from, once the ‘fight or flight’ energy is triggered, the body enters an immobilised freeze state, where pain is numbed, breathing and heart rate slow, and muscles tense. We may dissociate completely, and there is no way to release the ‘fight or flight’ energy. The intense feelings and sensations associated with the freeze response can become trapped in our minds and bodies, even after the traumatic event has passed. Crucially, trauma is not the event that happened but how our body responds to it.

How Trauma is ‘Stored’

Trauma changes your brain, activating the primitive part focused on survival. This affects the brain’s memory system, causing memories of the event to be stored in a fragmented and disorganised way. Emotions and physical sensations associated with the trauma can also become ‘stuck’ in our bodies, leading to symptoms like hypervigilance, flashbacks, and emotional numbness. Trauma can affect how we feel, think, and relate to others long after the event has occurred, as the body continues to react as if we are still in danger. 

When we can’t fight or flee, the energy generated by the stress response gets trapped in our nervous system. Unprocessed emotions like fear, anger, sadness, or helplessness can also get stuck in our bodies, contributing to ongoing physical and emotional discomfort. This trapped energy can cause several difficult-to-diagnose health issues, from chronic fatigue syndrome to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and autoimmune problems.

Common Situations That Cause Trauma

Trauma can occur when we experience something stressful once or over a period of time, overwhelming our capacity to cope. Essentially, it is an experience or series of experiences that repeatedly stress our nervous system. Although it is impossible to list all of the potential causes of trauma, here are categories and detailed examples of potentially traumatic experiences:

Abuse and Neglect

  • Physical Abuse: Inflicting physical harm through hitting, slapping, or other forms of violence. This can lead to long-term physical and psychological damage, creating a constant state of fear and hypervigilance.
  • Emotional Abuse: Manipulation, verbal abuse, and actions that undermine a person’s self-worth. This can include constant criticism, threats, or rejection, leading to anxiety, depression, and issues with self-esteem.
  • Sexual Abuse: Any form of unwanted sexual contact or behavior, including molestation, rape, or sexual exploitation. This can cause deep psychological scars, leading to issues with intimacy, trust, and chronic mental health conditions like PTSD.
  • Neglect: Failure to provide necessary care, support, or attention, resulting in unmet physical and emotional needs. This can occur in childhood or elder care, leading to feelings of worthlessness, abandonment, and severe developmental issues.

Violence and Assault

  • Assault: Any physical attack intended to harm, including mugging, physical fights, or domestic violence. This can result in physical injuries and deep psychological trauma, leading to fear, anxiety, and a sense of vulnerability.
  • Domestic Violence: Abuse within a domestic setting, often between intimate partners, which can be physical, emotional, or sexual. This can lead to chronic stress, fear, and a constant state of alertness, affecting every aspect of the victim’s life.
  • Mugging or Robbery: Violent theft or the threat of violence during a robbery. The sudden, violent nature of these events can leave victims with long-term anxiety, mistrust, and PTSD.
  • Witnessing Violence: Observing acts of violence, whether at home, in the community, or in war. This can be as traumatising as experiencing violence firsthand, leading to emotional numbness, detachment, and severe anxiety.

Reproductive and Family Trauma

  • Reproductive Trauma: Stressful experiences related to childbirth, pregnancy loss, or infertility. This can include complications during childbirth, miscarriages, or the emotional toll of infertility treatments, leading to grief, depression, and anxiety.
  • Death of a Loved One: The profound grief and emotional turmoil following a significant loss. This can lead to prolonged mourning, depression, and a sense of meaninglessness or hopelessness.
  • Divorce or Separation: The emotional and psychological stress of ending a significant relationship. This can result in feelings of failure, abandonment, and deep emotional pain, affecting self-esteem and future relationships.
  • Family Health Issues: Dealing with a family member’s serious health conditions, such as an eating disorder, bipolar disorder, addiction issues, or cancer. The chronic stress and emotional strain of caring for or being affected by a loved one’s illness can lead to anxiety, depression, and trauma.

Economic and Occupational Trauma

  • Loss of Employment: The financial and emotional impact of losing a job, leading to stress, anxiety, and a potential identity crisis. This can cause severe financial strain, loss of self-worth, and mental health struggles.
  • Workplace Harassment: Bullying, discrimination, or other harmful behaviours in a work setting. This can include sexual harassment, racial discrimination, or workplace bullying, leading to chronic stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • School Bullying: Persistent bullying or harassment in an educational environment. This can result in severe emotional distress, impacting academic performance, self-esteem, and leading to long-term psychological issues.

Health-Related Trauma

  • Severe Illness or Injury: The physical and emotional strain of dealing with serious health issues, such as cancer or a life-threatening injury. This can lead to feelings of helplessness, depression, and anxiety about health and mortality.
  • Surgical Procedures: The stress and potential complications related to surgeries. This can include fear of the procedure, pain during recovery, and anxiety about the outcome, potentially leading to PTSD.

Accidents and Disasters

  • Car, Plane, and Boat Accidents: The traumatic impact of serious vehicular accidents, often causing physical injuries and long-term psychological effects. Survivors may develop PTSD, fear of travel, and anxiety.
  • Natural Disasters: Events like earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods that cause widespread devastation. The sudden, uncontrollable nature of these events can lead to severe anxiety, PTSD, and a sense of helplessness.

Combat and Conflict

  • Combat: The extreme stress and potential PTSD resulting from military service. This includes exposure to life-threatening situations, loss of comrades, and moral injuries, leading to severe PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
  • Refugee Experiences: The trauma associated with fleeing one’s home due to war or persecution. This includes loss of home, family separation, and exposure to violence, leading to chronic stress, anxiety, and PTSD.
  • Kidnapping or Hostage Situations: The severe psychological stress of being held captive. This can lead to intense fear, PTSD, and long-term psychological effects, including Stockholm syndrome.
  • Terrorism: The fear and trauma associated with acts of terrorism. This can lead to widespread fear, anxiety, and PTSD, affecting not just direct victims but also the broader community.

Overcoming The Origins of Trauma

At Khiron Clinics, we prioritise approaches that emphasise safety and empowerment. As a Polyvagal-informed clinic, we recognise the body-mind connection. We understand that healing from trauma requires a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches, addressing the need for the discharge and release of energy that has become stuck when the body feels trapped and frozen. 

Khiron Clinics specialises in therapy that directly works with the nervous system, specifically targeting the origins of trauma to heal the underlying causes of mental health issues, often rooted in unfinished responses to earlier threats.