What Trauma Really Is

In April of 2015, I attended a conference in Paramus, New Jersey where a hero of mine (and friend for many years before he got as famous as he is now), Dr. Bruce Perry was the speaker. The subject was on trauma, which is what he speaks about all over the world. I was stunned and taken aback when he announced to the group that he actually no longer liked the word “trauma.” My first thought was, “oh dear, Bruce, the sponsors just paid quite a bit of money for you to come and speak to them about trauma and now you are saying this?”

But his great point has stuck with me since! It is essential for anyone who wants to understand the real nature of trauma. And that is that trauma is actually all about toxic stress, especially chronic toxic stress. Trauma, by its very nature, impacts the brain and changes it biologically and neurochemically. The change may be temporary when the trauma is short lived – and especially when there are immediate responses to support the person who experienced the traumatic event that allows the brain and the body to do what it knows to do–recover and move on.

There are many kinds of trauma, as you may already know and that I will address in a future blog. Most of the time though, when we think of emotional traumas, we think of major life-altering, terrifying events. But there are many others, including those that can be categorized as insidious.

beaker with atom symbols The common denominator for all of these traumas is how they put stress on the brain and the body. This stress causes the brain to release its very powerful neurochemicals, creating a myriad of protective responses which allow that person to either fight or somehow escape what is or has happened. It’s an amazing response system, used by the brain and body for necessary protection.

But things can go very wrong. These neurochemical and biological responses to an infusion of fear or terror that evoke the normal life-saving stress responses can have a very negative effect if they occur for long periods of time. That is what Dr. Perry was referring to when he spoke of chronic, toxic stress. If a person does not receive tender, loving responses that quiet an overstressed reaction, the memories of a traumatic event can continue to make the brain push out toxic levels of stress hormones. If the situation is more about chronic stress in general, the body is still releasing the stress-related neurochemicals and that steady stream of these chemicals is actually toxic over time to the brain and body. They also harm a person’s mental health because they tend to have someone either very hyped up, or hypervigilant and/or very checked out or dissociative as a way to mentally and emotionally escape.

Here is some interesting information from Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology and How You Can Heal by Donna Jackson Nakazawa. She describes how Seth Pollak, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the Child Emotion Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, “found that 50 children with a history of adversity and trauma show changes in a gene that help us to manage stress by signaling the cortisol response to quiet down so that the body can return to a calm state after a stressor. But because this gene was damaged, the body couldn’t rein in its heightened stress response.” https://www2.waisman.wisc.edu/childemotion/research.html

Said Polak, ‘the crucial set of brakes are now off.’ This is only one of hundreds of genes that are altered when a child faces adversity.

When the HPA stress axis is overloaded in childhood or the teenage years, it leads to long-lasting side effects— not just because of the impact stress has on us at that time in our lives, but also because early chronic stress biologically reprograms how we will react to stressful events for our entire lives. That long-term change creates a new physiological setpoint for how actively our endocrine and immune function will churn out a damaging cocktail of stress neurochemicals that barrage our bodies and cells when we are 30, 40, 50, and beyond.

Once the stress system is damaged, we over-respond to stress when our ability to recover naturally from that reactive response mode is impaired. We’re always responding.

Imagine for a moment that your body receives it stress hormones and chemicals through an IV drip that’s turned on high when needed. When the crisis passes, it is switched off again. Now think of it this way: kids whose brains have undergone epigenetic changes because of early adversity have a drip of fight-or-flight hormones turned on high every day—and there is no off switch.

When the HPA stress system is turned on and revved to go all the time, we are always caught in that first half of the stress cycle. We unwittingly marinate in those inflammatory chemicals for decades, which sets the stage for symptoms to be at full throttle years down the road. This could be presented in the form of irritable bowel syndrome, autoimmune disease, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, fibroid tumors, ulcers, heart disease, migraines, asthma, and cancer.”

As you can see, Dr. Perry was accurate in saying that we need to understand trauma for what it is at its heart: toxic stress, and sometimes chronic toxic stress. By appreciating that trauma really is all about stress, we can gain a better understanding of its nature, what we need to do to prevent it and how we need to respond to it.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. What comes to mind when you think of the concept of stress? When can stress be a good thing?
  2. How stressed do you think you are today? Is it more than a healthy, normal stress or is it more in the realm of toxic stress? How chronic is it? Have you ever thought about it as a kind of trauma?
  3. When you think of your children, to what extent you think they are experiencing healthy stress? Toxic stress? Chronic, toxic stress?
  4. What are some ways you can relieve them and you of the unhealthy forms of toxic stress?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institutue