There are two conditions that must occur together to create trauma:
- being involved in a life-threatening event
- feeling completely alone in that event
It’s important to understand that an event may or may not appear life threatening from the outside. What matters is that the person involved experiences that their life is in immediate danger. And in the midst of this terror for their life, there is absolutely no-one to rescue, protect or understand them. This creates enormous fear. It sends the adrenals into overdrive, pumping out adrenaline and cortisol.
These hormones are designed to give us the energy to get out of harm’s way by fighting or fleeing. If we are actually able to do either or both, we often escape being permanently traumatized by the life-threatening event.
But what often happens is that fight or flight is not possible, and instead we freeze, which is the third instinctual response to a threat to our life. This freezing strategy makes sense when we consider that a predator may lose interest in “dead” prey, walk away, and inflict less damage. One thing abuse survivors often say is that they did not fight back because they believed that it would have made the abuse worse, which can certainly happen. For example, when a woman flees an abusive relationship, it is very likely that her abuser will pursue her, and if he finds her, he will significantly increase the abuse.
So, what typically happens when we are involved in a traumatic event is that we are left with an overload of adrenal hormones and no way to physically release that energy. We are left with great fear that the trauma could reoccur at any moment, so the adrenals do not go back to baseline levels, as they normally would. This intense energy becomes trapped in our body, and the condition becomes permanent. The freezing does not let up either, because it has been so deeply imprinted on us as a way to deal with the fear.
So the traumatized person spends a lifetime stuck between two very powerful opposing forces, the force of the adrenal hormones and the opposing imperative to stay frozen. Needless to say, this is very hard on the body and psyche. It leads to physical symptoms such as metabolic syndrome, autoimmune disease, and adrenal fatigue, along with many psychological symptoms such as chronic fearfulness, anger, rage, suicidality and depression.
Traumatizing events can take two basic forms:
This occurs when there is a single shocking event, such as an accident, hospitalization, death of a parent, or sexual assault.
Complex trauma occurs when there is a series of incidents, none of which would necessarily be traumatic on their own, but added together, eventually become traumatic.
And of course, there can be a combination of the two, which often happens with abuse. It is relatively easy to understand being traumatized by a single shocking event, but being traumatized by a series of not-so-terrible events is not so intuitively obvious.
Let’s look at the latter with the help of a common example, attachment trauma. This is usually created when we are in infancy, and our parent, usually our mother, is emotionally misattuned or emotionally unresponsive, and unable to bond with us in the way that we need. For whatever reason she may be cold, inconsistent, scary or absent. While any one instance of misattunement is not generally harmful, when it happens over and over again for the whole of childhood, it creates a persistent fear in us that since mother does not seem to love us or be bonded with us, we will be abandoned, and will not survive. So, we find ourselves emotionally abandoned in what feels like the life threatening situation of being far too young to care for ourselves.
This might seem like an extreme reaction until we remember that until very recently in human history, an abandoned child did indeed starve to death or become a meal for the next hungry predator.
Most complex trauma is created in childhood by parents who are not able to give us what we need to feel loved, heard, seen, respected, and attuned to emotionally. Our parents may be depressed, absent, needy, misattuned, self-absorbed, angry, overly critical, seductive, mentally ill or abusive. Or they may be good people who are simply unable to give the love and attunement that a young child needs. When parents are like this over a long period of time, they tend to create trauma in their children.