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Basics of trauma theory

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Hey there. 

I set out tonight to try to write out the principles of trauma theory I’ve found most helpful for myself. The text below is written in the same style I’ve used to explain the material to friends with PTSD, whilst the references are to the academic material. 

Trauma responses are automatic and happen because of the way the brain is structured1, 3


The brain evolved bottom up, from the least complex ‘reptilian’ brainstem up to the most complex neocortex. These parts interact and through experience, sensory information is categorised as safe or unsafe. Incoming sensory information is processed by the brain bottom up.




(This isn’t the only way to categorise the brain but in all of them the organisation is hierarchical)


Say, for example, you experienced a traumatic accident during which you heard glass smash. 

Years later you drop a glass loading the dishwasher. The sound results in patterns of activity in your brainstem. It activates your limbic system and you feel fear. After this the information reaches the cortical part of your brain that allows you to make a cognitive interpretation of what is going on. There’s a complex reaction of Neurotransmitters and Neuropeptides flooding your body.


The limbic system also communicates with the autonomic nervous system. It has two branches, sympathetic and parasympathetic. The Sympathetic branch is used in stress - things like increased heart rate, blood pressure and respiration. 


Trauma responses are adaptive in the context of the trauma2


There are five different defense states, which we (automatically) enact depending on how severe the threat is. If we encounter something new or potentially dangerous, we orient to the new thing and sometimes become very still, the freeze-alertThis would be helpful for a rabbit when it has seen a fox, but the fox has not seen them.  Running at this point would make the fox notice the rabbit However, if the fox sees the rabbit then getting the heck out of there would be the most helpful defense - flight. An animal who is equipped to defend itself may use the flight response.


If threat is inescapable, the freeze-fright response can occur.  Muscles freeze and it’s often described colloquially as the “deer in the headlights” or “scared stiff” state. 


If threat is inescapable then the final defense is collapse. Muscles go limp and pain-relieving opiods flood the body. For animals this can be helpful if a predator loses interest in prey they think is dead, or if somebody experiences a fall they may be less hurt if muscles are loose. 


At times, I fought during medical trauma and was later angry at myself because it made the situation worse. It helped to considered that it was my body reacting to a threat. During a different trauma as a child, I initially froze. When I realised I was powerless, I collapsed. Years later I blamed myself for ‘letting it happen’. It helped to understand that I was so defenceless that withdrawing into myself and dissociating was the only way to cope. 


1) http://www.childtrau...n01/page03.html

2) http://www.trauma-pa.../a/dvb-2013.php

3) http://childtrauma.o...almodel_06.pdf 


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Thank you for posting this. Some professionals and people still don't understand that people don't respond in neat patterned ways as expected to trauma.

I've been told to get over it. It explains why I might try to rationalize abuse done to me soon after it happened and then process it differently years later. If there was little chance of escape normalizing something might be a rational response. It was amazing how people who could have helped me back then also chose to rationalize my situation rather than react and help.

Edited by wookie

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This is super helpful. I definitely did freeze during my first trauma, then collapse for subsequent traumas of a similar nature. Thanks for sharing!

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