On this page: How can emotional or psychological trauma be distinguished from stress? | Why is emotional trauma a brain matter? | How does emotional trauma in infancy make us vulnerable to trauma later in life? | What kinds of experience trigger emotional or psychological trauma? | What are the symptoms of emotional trauma?
A stress response that fails to return to a state of equilibrium becomes unresolved psychological/emotional trauma. Emotional or psychological trauma is the extreme end of the stress disorder continuum. It is stress run amuck –a deregulation of the nervous system that remains fixed and contributes to lifelong mental, emotional and physical disorders including anxiety and depression. Emotional trauma can result from such common occurrences as an auto accident, the breakup of a significant relationship, a humiliating or deeply disappointing experience, the discovery of a life-threatening illness or disabling condition, or other similar situations. Traumatizing events can take a serious emotional toll on those involved, even if the event did not cause physical damage.
The word trauma brings to mind the effects of such major events as war, rape, kidnapping, abuse, torture, or other similar assault. The emotional aftermath of such events, recognized by the medical and psychological communities, and increasingly by the general public, is known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But traumatic stress has a broader definition than PTSD alone provides. Traumatic stress leads to lifelong chronic physical disabilities, learning disabilities, relationship problems and emotional disorders including anxiety and depression and can be caused by seemingly benign experiences in infancy and early childhood. This new field, early-life relational or developmental trauma, is less familiar, even to professionals, but offers a new approach to healing a wide range of lifelong mental, emotional and physical disorders.
How can emotional or psychological trauma be distinguished from stress?
If we can calm ourselves by ourselves or communicate our distress to people who care about us and are able to return to a state of equilibrium following a stressful event, we are in the realm of stress. If instead, we become frozen in a state of active emotional intensity or a state of fear, or if we withdraw or become depressed, we are experiencing emotional trauma –though we may not always be consciously aware of the level of distress we are experiencing.
One way to tell the difference between stress and emotional trauma is by looking at the outcome – how much residual effect an upsetting event is having on our lives, relationships, and overall functioning. Traumatic distress can be distinguished from routine stress by assessing the following
- How quickly upset is triggered
- How frequently upset is triggered
- How intensely threatening the source of upset is
- How long upset lasts
- How long it takes to calm down
Why is emotional trauma a brain matter?
Our brains are structured into three main parts, long observed in autopsies:
- The cortex, the outer surface where higher thinking skills arise; this includes the frontal cortex which is the most recently evolved part of the brain
- The limbic system, the center of the brain, where emotions evolve
- The brain stem or reptilian brain that controls basic survival functions
Because of the development of brain scan technology, scientists can now observe the brain in action, without waiting for an autopsy. These scans reveal that trauma actually changes the structure and function of the brain, at the point where the frontal cortex, the emotional brain and the survival brain converge. A significant finding is that brain scans of people with relationship difficulties, social and emotional disorders, learning problems, and problems related to emotional intelligence reveal similar structural and functional irregularities of the brain as those identified with PTSD.
How does emotional trauma in infancy make us vulnerable to trauma later in life?
Poor or inadequate relationship with a primary caretaker in infancy and early childhood influences the brain and creates developmental or relational trauma. Sources of developmental or relational trauma include the following:
- forced separation very early in life from primary caregiver;
- chronic mis-attunement of caregiver to child’s attachment signals (“mal-attachment”) or reasons such as physical or mental illness, depression, trauma or grief. For a more complete description of both adequate and inadequate attachment bonding see Parenting: Attachment, Bonding and Reactive Attachment Disorder.
Children who fail to receive an adequate attachment bond with their primary caretaker because of abuse or unintentional neglect lack neurological means to calm, focus and sooth themselves. This lack of resiliency makes such individuals more at risk for traumatic experience in the future. Without the ability to remain calm and stay focused in the face of painful, difficult and threatening experiences, we are overwhelmed and become traumatized.
It is acknowledged that early life trauma creates a vulnerability for experiencing future traumatic responses. For fuller insight on the causes of psychological/emotional trauma see the adult trauma history questionnaire found in the professional section of this site.
What kinds of experience trigger emotional or psychological trauma?
Psychological trauma can result from:
- Unresolved loss and profound disappointments
- Experiencing or witnessing horrific injury, carnage or fatalities
- Serious accidents such as automobile or other high-impact scenarios
- Natural disasters (earthquakes, fires, floods, hurricanes, etc.)
- Physical assault, including rape, incest, molestation, domestic abuse
- Serious bodily harm
Other potential sources of psychological trauma are often overlooked including:
- Falls or sports injuries
- Surgery, particularly emergency, and especially in first 3 years of life
- Serious illness, especially when accompanied by very high fever
- Birth trauma –trauma within the womb and during birth
- Hearing about violence to or sudden death of someone close
What are the symptoms of emotional trauma?
There are common effects or conditions that may occur following a traumatic event. Sometimes these responses can be delayed, for months or even years after the event. Often, people do not even initially associate their symptoms with the precipitating trauma. The following are symptoms that may result from a more commonplace, unresolved trauma, especially if there were earlier, overwhelming life experiences:
- Eating disturbances (more or less than usual)
- Sleep disturbances (more or less than usual)
- Sexual dysfunction
- Low energy
- Chronic, unexplained pain
- Depression, spontaneous crying, despair and hopelessness
- Panic attacks
- Compulsive and obsessive behaviors
- Feeling out of control
- Irritability, anger and resentment
- Emotional numbness
- Withdrawal from normal routine and relationships
- Memory lapses, especially about the trauma
- Difficulty making decisions
- Decreased ability to concentrate
- Feeling distracted
- ADHD symptoms
Common effects of emotional trauma on interpersonal relationships:
- Inability to maintain close relationships or choose appropriate friends and mates
- Sexual problems
- Arguments with family members, employers or co-workers
- Social withdrawal
- Feeling constantly threatened
Common personal and behavioral effects of emotional trauma:
- Substance abuse
- Compulsive behavior patterns
- Self-destructive and impulsive behavior
- Uncontrollable reactive thoughts
- Inability to make healthy professional or lifestyle choices
- Dissociative symptoms (“splitting off” parts of the self)
- Feelings of ineffectiveness, shame, despair, hopelessness
- Feeling permanently damaged
- A loss of previously sustained beliefs
The following additional symptoms of emotional trauma are commonly associated with a severe precipitating event, such as a natural disaster, exposure to war, rape, assault, violent crime, major car or airplane crashes, or child abuse. Extreme symptoms can also occur as a delayed reaction to the traumatic event.
Re-experiencing the Trauma
- Intrusive thoughts
- Flashbacks or nightmares
- Sudden floods of emotions or images related to the traumatic event
Emotional Numbing and Avoidance
- Avoidance of situations that resemble the initial event
- Guilt feelings
- Grief reactions
- An altered sense of time Increased Arousal
- Hyper-vigilance, jumpiness, an extreme sense of being “on guard”
- Overreactions, including sudden unprovoked anger
- General anxiety
- Obsessions with death