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Why trauma affects people so much

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Trauma is something that happens following a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. It is emotional shock that develops after a stressful event or a physical injury, which may lead to long-term mental health problems.

The word “trauma” itself derives from a Greek word meaning “wound”. Just as with a physical wound if a trauma is not treated it may never heal – and may start to get worse.

Trauma can particularly lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, alcoholism and other addictions. Respected addiction expert Dr Gabor Maté states that every addict he’s ever treated over decades in his professional career has suffered from trauma.

A type of trauma that is heard about often is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is a serious anxiety disorder that affects 30 percent of those who have a traumatic episode.

In some people the mental health problems brought on by trauma may begin immediately. In others it can take weeks, months and even years.

Trauma also leads to physical health problems too. This includes heart issues as well as cancer.

The impact of trauma

“From my vantage point as a researcher we know that the impact of trauma is upon the survival or animal part of the brain,” says psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, author of New York Times bestseller The Body Keeps The Score. “That means that our automatic danger signals are disturbed, and we become hyper- or hypo-active: aroused or numbed out.

“We become like frightened animals,” continues van der Kolk, who’s treated people with trauma for 40 years. “We cannot reason ourselves out of being frightened or upset.

He explains that there is a mistaken theory that trauma is mostly about memory – the story of what has happened. That is often correct for the first few days after a traumatic event, but then “a cascade of defenses precipitate a variety of reactions in mind and brain that are attempts to blunt the impact of the ongoing sense of threat”. But he says these then set up their own excessive amount of problems.

“So, trying to find a chemical to abolish bad memories is an interesting academic enterprise, but it’s unlikely to help many patients,” he says. “It’s a too-simplistic view in my opinion. Your whole mind, brain and sense of self is changed in response to trauma.”

How to know something is a trauma

Everybody is different and everyone reacts differently. So if two children in the same household experience trauma in the form of physical abuse they may well be affected in differing ways.

This is because one might be of a more sensitive nature than the other. So it affects them more severely – and so perhaps it is that in later life they develop an addiction problem in an attempt to deal with their pain.

Trauma is when an incident or situation happens that leaves someone feeling:

  • Frightened or terrified.
  • Neglected.
  • Abandoned.
  • Not validated.
  • Threatened.
  • Not safe or secure.
  • Entrapped.
  • Humiliated.
  • Ashamed.
  • Powerless.
  • Rejected.
  • Remorseful.
  • Guilty.

Then there are more factors that influence how anyone can be affected by trauma. The more someone answers yes to the following questions the more the possibility that the affect of the trauma is severe.

  • Did the trauma take place during childhood?
  • Were you on your own during the trauma? (If there was a perpetrator was it just you and them?)
  • Was the perpetrator someone you knew?
  • Would most people consider what happened to be acute or harsh if it was described to them?
  • Did it go on over a period of time? (This includes if it was one incident that went on for a long time or something that went on regularly or periodically for days, weeks, months or years.)
  • Did you or have you since told anyone about it but not been believed or what you have said not been taken seriously?
  • Did you have anything distressful or worries and/or stresses at the time of the traumatic incident or situation?
  • Had you experienced other trauma beforehand? Have you had anything since?
  • Do you still see or hear about the perpetrator and/or do you still regularly see the place where the trauma happened?


Trauma affects people severely because if it is not properly treated it won’t go away. As Dr Maté discovered throughout his career many people try to push down or numb the psychological scars caused by trauma through substance abuse and addiction.

But this is never the solution and at some point the painful feelings and memories will come to the surface. It is like an untreated physical scar being left to fester.

How to treat trauma

A phrase sometimes heard in counseling treatment is: where you least want to go is where you need to in order to find that which you most need. This can often seem too daunting, which is why people struggling due to trauma really need professional help.

As Dr Maté says: “Trauma is not what happens to a person, but what happens within them. Nothing overtly dramatic needs to happen to a young human being to induce trauma.

“It is sufficient that she or he is wounded without an immediate capacity to heal the wound. Thus, a parent’s emotional distance or depression, in the absence of any intended or implied abuse, is enough.

“Young children can be traumatized simply when their need for attuned attention and responsive interaction with the parent is unmet – often due to no conscious awareness on the part of the parent. Whenever we experience significant bodily or psychic tension, we are likely experiencing a traumatic implicit memory.”

He goes on to say how because we are born connected to our gut feelings, when the pain of the traumatic event is unbearable, one manner of self-protection is to disconnect from our feelings. This means that anyone doing this is no longer fully or truthfully experiencing being who they really are and this also shapes their view of the world.

Maté thinks the recognition of trauma is the beginning of resilience, meaning that the person is no longer in denial of or in unconscious flight from their emotions. Using the physical scar analogy, it is necessary to look at the wound in order to fully treat it.

Thankfully there are several effective and proven ways to treat trauma. We carefully and confidentially listen to our guests here – and then create a personal individualized treatment program that will work the best for the most effective recovery.

Our professional team at Tikvah Lake understands trauma and has years of experience in helping people with it. To find out how we can help you or someone you care about, please contact us today.

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Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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