What is trauma, and how does it happen?
Most people think that trauma occurs during an act of violence, extreme danger, a natural disaster, or in an accident. Whilst those events often do cause trauma, other less intense experiences can also be traumatic.
At BodyWise Foundation, we define trauma as any experience that is overwhelming for the body, or that the body does not have the resources or time to integrate. Trauma is incredibly common; everyone has experienced it in their own unique way.
Our bodies are equipped to handle everyday stress.
When we experience a perceived "threat", like a car slamming on its breaks, our nervous system is activated and responds. Ideally, one would respond by also slowing their car. Their nervous system would then de-escalate from a state of heightened arousal and return to a baseline or relaxed state relatively quickly.
When we experience consistent stress, however, our nervous system becomes overwhelmed and cannot return to its normal, relaxed state. Some call these experiences micro traumas.
Other incidences, like an act of violence, accident, or natural disaster are considered larger traumas.
Both kinds of experiences dysregulate the nervous system. This dysregulation is what eventually leads to trauma symptoms.
When we perceive a threat, our sympathetic nervous system (the fight/flight system) activates. Internally, a biological cascade occurs - neurotransmitters like cortisol, norepinephrine and dopamine are released. Resources are mobilized so that we can respond (by fighting or fleeing): our heart rate increases, our adrenal glands pump out cortisol (stress hormone), our respiration quickens, our pupils dilatate, blood shunts from the organs and moves into our legs so that we can run, etc. This is sometimes called the stress response.
However, we often do not respond to the internal impulse to run or fight. When we are driving, we slow our car and recollect our composure. When our boss yells at us we take a deep breath, and perhaps clench our fist under the desk. We have learned how to manage our impulses and exist within the expectations of our society.
This means that mobilized energy is still present internally. You can think of it as though the gas and the brake pedal are being pressed at the same time. This conflict is what begins to dysregulate the nervous system.
Until the activation is released, or the impulse to fight or flight is completed, the body still believes it is under threat.