Traumatic experiences are common, much more than we might think. One study found that approximately 76.1% of Canadians have experienced at least one traumatic event during their lifetime 1, which is a significant amount of people! When considering what traumatic experiences are, we often think of veterans returning from war or others who have witnessed or been subject to violence themselves. While these experiences definitely are traumatic, experiences like being exposed repeatedly to details of distressing events, or experiencing a sudden loss of someone close can also cause a trauma response and lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)1,3. What all of these different events have in common is that they involve death or intimidations around death, critical injury, or violence 2.
Traumatic events can lead to the development of symptoms which can interfere with our daily functioning and overall well-being. Approximately 9.2% of Canadians eventually become diagnosed with PTSD after experiencing trauma 1. Much like any other mental health concern, what this looks like can be different from person to person. The following are some symptoms you could experience 3:
Have a constant sense that something bad is going to happen
Thinking all the time about the event or having nightmares
Regularly being on alert or on edge (this is known as hypervigilance)
Trauma responses generally appear immediately after the event but within approximately a month gradually get better 3. Someone may be experiencing PTSD if their symptoms persist longer than this or worsen.
So what causes a trauma response and why can it be difficult to recover from? One model suggests our brains are comprised of three parts: Reptilian, which is responsible for survival and automatic processes; Mammalian, which is responsible for emotions and senses; and Neommalian, which is responsible for thought processes, memory, and decision-making 4. When we encounter trauma, the reptilian part of the brain takes over, thereby shutting down the other parts, and activates the sympathetic nervous system, in turn increasing stress hormones and preparing us to fight, flight, or freeze 4. Generally, once the threat goes away, the mechanisms switch and allow the body to come back to a balanced state; however, in those with PTSD, the switch does not happen does so the body continues along in a constant state of stress and danger 4. Because of this, other chemicals and circuits in our brain are also thrown off and reinforce this state 4.
Now that we understand what causes trauma responses and PTSD, as well as have an idea of what a trauma response could look like, you may be wondering what you can do you manage this. Please read on for part two of this blog, where we will focus on what steps you can take if you think you may be experiencing symptoms of trauma or PTSD!
1 Ameringen, M., Mancini. C., Patterson, B., & Boyle, M. H. (2008). Posttraumatic stress disorder in Canada. CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, 14, 171-181. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-5949 .2008.00049.x.
2 American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
3 Kamkar, K. (2020, December 10). "Psychology works" fact sheet: Post-traumatic stress disorder - canadian psychological association. Canadian Psychological Association - The national voice for psychology in Canada. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from https://cpa.ca/psychology-works-fact-sheet-post-traumatic-stress-disorder/
4 Rosenthal, M. (2019, June 27). How trauma changes the brain. Boston Clinical Trials. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from https://www.bostontrials.com/how-trauma-changes-the-brain/#!/