Telling someone ‘I feel traumatised’ will generally elicit the response, ‘stop overreacting!’. The reality is that traumatic experiences are surprisingly common.
A 2008 Canadian study (Van Ameringen et al., 2008) found that 76% of participants had been exposed to at least 1 traumatic event in their life. So what is it and why aren’t we all traumatised all the time?
Bad things happen to us all but seldom overpower our ability to cope, manage the consequences, resolve and move on. Trauma is a specific experience that in the moment at least does overpower that ability.
Dropping your mobile phone down the toilet, for example, is upsetting. Being hit by a car at any time can be overwhelming.
The first may trigger all sorts of automatic responses. It does not utterly challenge our potential existence and overpower our capacity to respond. The existential threat of the latter is what triggers a trauma response as our basic survival systems kick in to close down anything that might prevent our fight, flight or freeze response to danger.
What are some of the responses of PTSD?
This response is biological, chemical and physical changing the function of our bodies, the chemistry of our brains and the operation of our senses. Time seems to slow down or stand still. We become incredibly focused, shutting out information that might distract us, our bodies convulse and react without apparent conscious direction. And then the incident or experience stops but the imprint of that temporary overwhelm remains, we are in shock, this is trauma.
Our sensory memory of the event can stay strong with flashbacks and intrusive images triggering feelings and emotions as if it were happening now. We can struggle to keep the event in the past even though we know that’s where it belongs.
This split between our sensory memory and narrative memory (knowing when and where the event and those feelings belong) is that hallmark of Post Traumatic Stress.
These symptoms may persist for some time whilst we process what did and could have happened, talking it through with friends, family, and colleagues. In most cases, this is sufficient for us to reintegrate sensory and narrative memory into a story of the event that makes sense and has a time and a place in our lives. We are back in control.
Am I suffering from PTSD?
Where experiences so completely overwhelm us or even disable our processing in the normal way (for example torture, rape, violence or other abuse), these symptoms may persist well beyond and seemingly independent of their cause. This is what is meant by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
This is a debilitating condition that if untreated will continue to disrupt our lives. As Susan Pease Banitt describes it: “PTSD is a whole-body tragedy, an integral human event of enormous proportions with massive repercussions.”
Trauma is common, fortunately PTSD is not, but one can lead to the other if not properly addressed.