Whether or not an event is ‘traumatic’ depends upon the individual’s subjective experience. What one individual may find traumatizing, another may not. Furthermore, two individuals traumatized by the same event/experience may be traumatized by different aspects of the experience as well as in different ways. If a person is traumatized by an excessively stressful event or series of events, it results in him/her being overwhelmed by his/her psychological experience, being unable to mentally process what has occurred, being unable to integrate what has happened and to the development of feelings of being constantly under threat, helpless and numerous other highly unpleasant emotional symptoms. Traumatization may also occur if s/he believes his/her life is in danger (whether or not, objectively speaking, this is actually the case), his/her bodily integrity (i.e. autonomy over own body) is endangered to that his/her sanity is under threat. (Pearlman and Saakvitne, 1995).
A traumatic experience may involve:
- A one-off, single event (e.g. a serious car accident, a natural disaster).
- Events that are ongoing, chronic, and repetitive (e.g. years of emotional abuse during childhood, living one’s childhood in an area dominated by serious urban violence, chronic exposure to domestic violence (either as an actual physical victim or as a witness to such violence such as in the case of a child who frequently witnesses his father beat his mother).
These two different categories of trauma have also been described as TYPE 1 TRAUMA and TYPE 2 TRAUMA.
It is becoming increasingly recognized that those who experience a one-off, single event type of traumatic experience may go on to develop PTSD whilst those who experience ongoing, chronic, and repetitive trauma may go on to develop complex-PTSD. In relation to this, you may wish to read my previously published article that explains the difference between PTSD and complex PTSD.
Also, a traumatic experience may be caused by human behavior or may occur naturally. Trauma that occurs naturally and is therefore not personal, the result of vindictiveness or betrayal, etc. is generally less psychologically difficult to deal with than trauma that has been deliberately inflicted on another human being. The damaging psychological effect of trauma caused by another person is likely to be especially severe and devastating when that person is emotionally close to the traumatized individual and the traumatized individual is psychologically reliant upon him/her. Worst of all is, in terms of its potentially catastrophic emotional effects, is the deliberate traumatization of a child by his/her mother (or other primary-carer). In relation to this, you may wish to read my previously published article entitled: Trauma Involving Betrayal More Likely To Lead To BPD And Complex PTSD.
Other factors that are likely to make the effects of trauma more severe include:
- trauma occurs repeatedly and chronically throughout childhood and coincides with vital development epochs when brain damage is particularly likely to occur. In relation to this you may wish to read my previously published article: Reducing Trauma-Related Brain Development Impairment In Young People.
- the trauma is sadistically inflicted
- there is nobody to validate the traumatized individuals experiences and nobody to support him/her emotionally
- the trauma occurs in early childhood when the brain is especially ‘plastic’ and malleable and therefore particularly vulnerable to developmental impairment caused by adverse experiences
- the trauma is inflicted unpredictably so that the child is ‘always waiting for it to happen but not knowing when’, and so becomes trapped in a state of perpetual hypervigilance
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)..