What is Traumatic Stress?

In life we inevitably suffer painful losses, dangers, disappointments, bereavement, it is part of the human condition. But when such events are too overwhelming, too frightening, we do not always get over them with the passage of time. Sometimes the process of recovery becomes stuck and the sufferer continues to view life events through the lens of the traumatic event. As Bessel van der Kolk writes, 'Despite the human capacity to survive and adapt, traumatic experiences can alter people's psychological, biological, and social equilibrium to such a degree that the memory of one particular event comes to taint all other experiences, spoiling appreciation of the present.'

The consequence of this can be many, including the symptoms of PTSD.

But not all trauma is of the life-threatening sort that produces PTSD. Many negative experiences are less dramatic, more cumulative, and can still cause much suffering, spoiling a person's ability to enjoy and live their life fully. For example, being raised in an insecure home environment, being bullied, being overly criticised, emotional neglect and deprivation can all contribute to making a person less emotionally resilient and less able to cope with difficult or traumatic life events.

What can increase the impact of a negative experience is the meaning we give it. For example being at the receiving end of another's violence is often more difficult to cope with than a random act of nature because it can feel so personal. One of the more difficult consequences of interpersonal trauma is that those who suffer from it often tend to blame themselves when bad things happen. The woman who gets raped when out late might blame herself for not taking a taxi. The child who blames himself or herself when their parent is cruel because they don't want to lose the illusion of having a loving parent. If you assume responsibility by blaming yourself, it creates an illusion of control over an event which lessens feelings of helplessness and vulnerability. Yet the price a victim pays for taking responsibility is often a sense of shame and badness. They can feel that if they were different or acted differently their suffering could have been prevented. Failure to attribute responsibility where it really belongs is frequently seen in people who suffer from traumatic stress.