Most people are familiar with the word ‘trauma’ when it has to do with sudden, painful, serious physical experiences, but did you know that trauma stemming from emotional experiences can be equally devastating? Emotional trauma is a term used to explain events that are emotionally distressing and overwhelm a person’s ability to cope, leaving them with feelings of helplessness. It comes from terrifying thoughts and distressing emotions. Mental trauma can cause individuals to develop a sense of personal vulnerability and alienation, and lead to chronic disorders such as sleeplessness, irritability, hyper-vigilance, and even flashbacks to the triggering event.

Violence and physical assault are the most readily understood forms of physical and mental trauma; however, it is important to know that more subtle forms of trauma are as insidious and equally as devastating. Continued discrimination, poverty and destitution, witnessing violence, or any continual or prolonged fear, anxiety or a chaotic lifestyle can be considered trauma, as they are life-altering and have effects on the health and life situations of the individuals involved.

Scientific studies have found that children who are consistently subjected to stress and trauma are wired differently than children who live and are raised in a safe, secure environment. But how is trauma detrimental to the development of a child? When stress or threat occurs, the individual’s body responds with a fight-or-flight reaction. The powerful hormone cortisol is released, and although it is important and can be a protection device in emergencies, if chronic stress occurs, the levels become toxic, and they damage and kill neurons that are present in crucial parts of the brain. Hyperarousal, which causes an elevated heart rate, body temperature, and continuous angst, is continually present in the person’s life.

An internal reaction is that the child dissociates, shutting down and detaching from emotions and feelings in order to adapt. The younger the child, the more likely they are to suffer from post-traumatic stress. This takes place due to the fact that they are helpless to be able to fight or flee. A state of helplessness becomes a learned response to life and the effects will reverberate throughout the child’s development unless treated.

Many forms of trauma exist:

What is childhood trauma?

Childhood trauma refers to distressing and harmful experiences that occur during a person’s formative years, typically from birth up to the age of 18. These events can be singular, such as a catastrophic accident, or can occur repeatedly, as in cases of chronic abuse or neglect. Whether it’s physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, witnessing violence, enduring persistent neglect, or living in an environment of constant fear, these experiences can profoundly affect a child’s developing brain, emotional regulation, and worldview.

Children subjected to trauma may manifest symptoms such as anxiety, depression, behavioral issues, academic struggles, or even physical ailments. The effects can persist into adulthood, sometimes leading to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, or difficulties in forming healthy relationships.

What is trauma bonding?

Trauma bonding refers to a powerful emotional attachment that can develop between an abused individual and their abuser. It is a survival strategy that emerges when victims form a bond with the perpetrator due to the cycle of reinforcement involving intermittent rewards and punishments.

In essence, moments of kindness or perceived care by the abuser—amidst the mistreatment—can lead the victim to form a bond rooted in dependence and misplaced loyalty. This bond can make it exceptionally challenging for the victim to recognize the abusive dynamics or to leave the harmful situation, as they may come to view the abuser as a source of comfort or security, despite the pain they inflict.

What is a trauma bond?

A trauma bond, akin to trauma bonding, is a deep emotional tie formed between an individual and their abuser. Rooted in cycles of abusive behaviors mixed with periods of love, kindness, or remorse, the victim becomes conditioned to associate pain with affection, thereby becoming trapped in the dynamic.

Trauma bonds often lead to a conflicted relationship where the victim feels a deep loyalty to the abuser, even in the face of harm. Such bonds can be challenging to break due to the intense emotional dependency and the fear of losing what may seem like a vital relationship. It’s a complex web of gratitude, loyalty, fear, and dependency that keeps the victim tethered to the abusive situation.

What is generational trauma?

Generational trauma, also known as intergenerational or transgenerational trauma, refers to the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next. When traumatic events or experiences impact one generation—such as war, genocide, or severe oppression—the effects can cascade down to subsequent generations.

This can occur through patterns of behavior, attitudes, and family narratives. Children might absorb the fear, pain, or distrust of their ancestors, even without directly experiencing the original traumatic event. Moreover, epigenetic research suggests that trauma can even alter the expression of genes in victims, which can then be passed down, leading to increased vulnerability in future generations.

What is complex trauma?

Complex trauma, often termed complex PTSD (C-PTSD), is a type of trauma resulting from repeated, prolonged exposure to highly stressful events, usually in contexts where the victim believes there’s no viable escape. Unlike PTSD, which typically arises from a singular traumatic event, C-PTSD results from sustained abuse or hardship over time. Examples include long-term childhood abuse, domestic violence, or being a prisoner of war.

The persistent nature of these traumas deeply affects an individual’s sense of self, emotional regulation, and interpersonal relationships. Symptoms can encompass challenges with emotional regulation, a constant sense of danger or threat, dissociation, difficulty forming trusting relationships, and feelings of shame or guilt.

What is secondary trauma?

Secondary trauma, also known as vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue, arises when an individual becomes traumatized not by directly experiencing a traumatic event, but by witnessing or hearing about the traumatic experiences of others. Often seen in professionals like therapists, healthcare workers, or first responders, it’s the emotional and psychological impact of being continually exposed to the traumatic stories or experiences of others. Over time, this indirect exposure can lead to symptoms similar to PTSD, including nightmares, increased anxiety, emotional numbness, and feelings of hopelessness.

What is considered trauma?

Trauma is the emotional, psychological, or physical response to an event or series of events that overwhelms an individual’s capacity to cope. It can be a result of a single distressing event, such as a natural disaster or violent assault, or from ongoing, chronic experiences like neglect, abuse, or prolonged conflict.

What’s crucial to understand is that trauma is subjective: what is traumatic for one person might not be for another, as individual resilience, past experiences, and support systems play significant roles in the perception and aftermath of trauma. Whether it manifests immediately or years later, trauma can profoundly affect one’s emotional well-being, physical health, and overall functioning.

If you or someone you love suffers from trauma, give us a call at (310) 310-9249. We can help!  Join us as we continue to discuss the impact of trauma.

“Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life.”  — Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery

**Announcement** On June 11th, our current electronic health system will transition to a new and advanced system to better serve you: Athena. Prior to the transition date, you will be sent a registration link to create a new patient account in Athena. If you have any immediate questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact your therapist, or call our office to speak to a staff member.