What is Trauma?

The word “trauma” is used to describe people’s experiences when their capacity to respond is overwhelmed. These experiences can be emotionally painful and distressing and impact people’s ability to cope, often leaving them feeling powerless.

“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

Normal Responses to Trauma/Toxic Stress

Normal Responses to Trauma/Toxic Stress

 Is it stress or is it trauma?

Trauma differs from stress in that trauma is stress run amuck. Normal levels of stress generally disrupt our nervous system for a relatively short period of time. At that point, our nervous systems calm down and we return to a normal state of stability. This return to our body’s normal routine is not often the case when we have experienced toxic stress or trauma.

Definition of stress

Stress is internal or external influences that disrupt an individual’s normal state of wellbeing. These influences are capable of affecting health by causing emotional distress and leading to a variety of physiological changes. These changes include increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and a dramatic rise in hormone levels.

Positive stress  <<<<<<<>>>>>>>toxic stress

Positive stress is an important part of a child’s developmental process and helps a child learn how to cope and overcome stress in their lives.

Toxic stress results from adverse experiences that may be sustained for a long period of time. This type of stress can disrupt early brain development, compromise the functioning of important biological systems, and may lead to long term health problems.

When children are very young, their brains are the most vulnerable to stress. Not all stress is bad for a developing brain, but when it lasts a long time or is extreme, it can impact how the a child’s brain develops. Toxic stress (like abuse and neglect) can interfere with the healthy development of the connections in the brain.

Click here to download InBrief: The Impact of Early Adversity on Children’s Development which outlines basic concepts from research on the biology of stress which shows that major adversity can weaken developing brain architecture and set the body’s stress response system on high alert.

Effect of early toxic stress and trauma on development

Early toxic stress and trauma in early childhood can:

  • influence a prolonged stress response,

  • impair childhood brain development, and
  • effect health and quality of life throughout the lifespan.

One way to tell the difference between stress and trauma is by looking at how much residual effect these events and circumstances are having on our lives, relationships, and overall functioning.

To learn more about toxic stress go, to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University:  www.developingchild.net.

Various responses to trauma

Not all people who experience the same event respond in the same ways. It is important to recognize that trauma is experienced differently in all individuals. The impact of trauma and the related effects, such as triggers and symptoms, may vary from person to person.

What determines whether individuals and groups are traumatized to the degree to which they are traumatized?

  • The event itself
  • The content of the person/group’s life at the time of the event
  • Individual and emotional characteristics

It is important to remember that a traumatic reaction is valid regardless of how the event that induced it appears to anyone else.