Psychological trauma occurs when the sense of threat to a person’s survival exceeds their capacity to cope with that sense of threat.

WHAT exceeds a person’s capacity to cope is not always obvious.  For a young child, for example, having an impaired or dysfunctional care-giver represents a significant threat to their survival because a competent care-giver is necessary for a child TO survive.  Young children are dependent on their parents to provide for their basic needs, such as shelter, food and emotional comfort; a child who lives with a parent or care-giver who cannot, for whatever reason, provide those things, may develop a trauma response.

Trauma can occur as a result of exposure to a single traumatic event, such as involvement in a natural disaster, sudden death of a family member, or witnessing terrorist attack.  

Trauma can ALSO occur from exposure to multiple traumatic events of the same type, which the victim experiences over a period of time.  Traumatic events can include things, amongst others, such as emotional abuse or neglect, being left repeatedly alone as a child, or physical abuse or neglect.  Repeated experiences such as these cumulate so that a person develops a complex trauma response.

What does complex trauma look like?

Trauma manifests in numerous ways.  These can include:

Behavioural Difficulties

When stressed, traumatized people may respond to others with physical violence, or shout and scream and break things.  They may also be overly perfectionistic or teary.  Some people may engage in risk-taking behaviours such as unsafe sexual activity, or playing chicken with oncoming traffic.

Cognitive/Learning Difficulties

Traumatized people typically have compromised memory systems:  They may struggle to recall details of their lives, to remember when/where/or with who an event took place, and to remember things that have just occurred.  For traumatized people, following the state of play in team sports can be very difficult, as can following group conversations and discussions.  Trauma-impacted people may struggle with reading, writing and verbal communication, and math can also be extremely difficult.

Difficulties Regulating Emotional Responses in Social Interactions

Traumatized people may react to seemingly innocuous comments and situations with extreme emotional responses.  Being asked to attend a work performance review may trigger a screaming match; being faced with an unexpected change may result in complete emotional shut-down, or literally running away.

Socially, traumatized people often find it difficult to connect to others and can be described as being ‘weird’, ‘annoying’ or sometimes ‘scary’.  Traumatized people may often be acutely aware of what others are feeling, but be unable to understand why they feel the way they do.  Traumatized people also often struggle to identify and name their own feelings.

Physical Health

Traumatized people often experience autoimmune disease and gut-based health issues, such as IBS.  Trauma significantly impacts on our immune systems, so trauma-impacted people are often chronically unwell.  Because trauma also impacts on physical growth and development, trauma-impacted people can be physically smaller than their peers.

Sense of Self

Traumatized people struggle with developing a positive self-image or self-esteem.  They typically feel fundamentally ‘broken’ or ‘irreparably damaged’ in some way, and have a strong sense of guilt, shame and personal responsibility for the abuse and/or neglect they suffered.

If you recognise some of these symptoms as being relevant to you, you may wish to explore the impact these may have on your current functioning.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

Experiences in childhood shape our lives.  Research has shown that traumatic, or stressful events in childhood (ACEs), injure a child’s brain, impairing the brain’s physical development and function. 

As adults, these experiences don’t go away.  Multiple stressful events in childhood may resurface in adulthood. The ACE Study found a link between multiple stressful events in childhood (ACEs) and chronic diseases, as well as social, emotional and behavioural problems. These included heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes and many autoimmune diseases, as well as depression, mental illness, suicide, and being a victim of violence.

Each type of trauma counts as one. At least 70% of our population has an ACE score of at least one. As your ACE score increases, so does the risk of disease, social, and emotional problems.

There are 10 types of stressful events in the ACE study* :

  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional neglect
  • Physical neglect
  • Absence of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment
  • A mother or stepmother who was treated violently
  • A household member who abused alcohol or drugs
  • A household member who was diagnosed with a mental illness
  • A household member who went to prison

If you have experienced 2 or more of the stressful events noted in the ACE study during your childhood, you may wish to explore the impact these may have had on your current functioning. 

*Note: Of course, there are many other types of stressful childhood events — watching a sibling being abused, losing a caregiver (grandmother, mother, grandfather, etc.), homelessness, surviving and recovering from a severe accident or experiencing a natural disaster, etc. The ACE Study includes the 10 most common stressful childhood events experienced by the 17,000 participants in the Kaiser ACE Study. These 10 stressful childhood events have been well studied in research literature. Your ACE score is meant to be a guideline. If you experienced other types of toxic stress as a child, over months or years, these events would likely increase your risk of disease, social and emotional problems in adulthood.