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What is Trauma?

It's hard to escape talk of trauma these days, and the term is often used colloquially (and inaccurately) as a synonym for "upsetting." The reason we are hearing more about trauma is because of relatively recent and ongoing discoveries about the role and function of the brain and nervous system in enabling us to cope with threats to our physical and emotional safety.


It is now understood that trauma that is not addressed can lead to long-lasting and severe emotional and physical effects. In addition, research has revealed that trauma is not confined to single-incident or isolated events such as those experienced in combat, accidents, natural disasters, or a violent attack or sudden death of a loved one, nor to extreme sexual or physical abuse.


A far more common category of trauma, known variously as Chronic Trauma, Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD), Little "t"  trauma, Type 2 trauma, or Developmental trauma, results from prolonged exposure, over time, to maltreatment that cannot be escaped. More specifically, the physiological changes triggered by the nervous system to enable a person to fight, flee, or freeze in order to survive, cannot be employed for safety because the victim is powerless to escape (e.g. in childhood). Research has shown that children do not need to experience extreme physical or sexual abuse to experience profound and long-lasting negative effects. What's more, emotional neglect can leave children just as impacted as physical and verbal/emotional abuse.


CPTSD is defined by the International Association of Trauma Recovery Coaching (IAOTRC) as "...exposure to long-term abandonment, abuse, and neglect during the first eight years of a child's life that disrupts cognitive, neurological and psychological development and attachment to adult caregivers."* 


CPTSD is characterized by*:

• an inability to control emotions – emotional dysregulation

• blanking out or losing memories – dissociation and repressed memories

• difficulties with a sense of identity or body image – body dysmorphia

• physical symptoms that can't be explained medically, such as headaches, stomach aces, dizziness, and chest pains

• disturbed relationships and cutting oneself off from other people

• an inability to trust others

• being vulnerable to exploitation and re-traumatization

• self-destructive behavior: self-harm, suicide attempts, and substance abuse

• feeling ashamed or guilty


* from the IAOTRC

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