Traumatic experiences are not something that you can compare. What’s traumatic for one person won’t be the same for another, but they always have the same elements in common. Here we look at what constitutes a traumatic experience and why it’s not possible to compare one trauma to another.
What is a traumatic experience?
A traumatic experience is any event that causes a strong emotional reaction to the emotional brain. It isn’t only something that happens to war veterans. Any event our brain perceives as threatening, to our physical or emotional needs, is stored away as a trauma template. Once this template is stored, our brain will constantly be monitoring our environment, looking for anything matching these templates. These may become threshold traumas or even lead to PTSD.
So, as an example, if you are attacked, then in that moment you will fear for your safety. At that point there will be a strong emotional reaction and your need for security will be under threat. The brain will store every detail of this event to make sure that any similar situation is recognised to try to prevent it happening again.
The criteria for a traumatic experience is simply that the brain perceives that the event is a threat to its emotional or physical needs. And the better that person’s basic emotional needs are met at the time of the event the less the brain perceives the situation as traumatic. This is because when our emotional needs are met well in balanced and healthy ways, we’re much more emotionally resilient.
Our brains all process traumatic experiences in the same way
When the brain determines something meets the criteria for trauma, the same neural pathways are activated whatever the cause. It doesn’t matter who you are or what the trauma is. The mechanism which stores a trauma pattern and the way in which it then used to protect us is the same in every healthy human brain.
What will differ is how emotionally resilient a person is – i.e. how well that person’s emotional and physical needs are being met. Also crucial is how many needs the event poses a threat to. To explain this, it’s necessary to go into a little more detail about the emotional needs that we have.
How our emotional needs affect trauma
We have physical needs as humans such as air, water, food and shelter. We also have a set of emotional needs, that have to be well met for us to be emotionally well. These needs are for security, giving and receiving attention, status, intimacy, emotional connection, control, achievement, purpose, privacy and community. If we meet all of these needs we are emotionally in balance and fairly resilient to trauma. The reason that this affects us, is that our emotional brain’s job is to keep us safe, and it will consider something that threatens any one of these needs as a trauma. The purpose of storing the experience as a trauma pattern is so that the brain can recognise the situation again and try to avoid it.
You can’t see someone else’s trauma
So for example, someone may lose a pet and be deeply affected by it. On the face of it you may struggle to see why even after a long while they’re not over it. But if they had no family around them and the pet was meeting the need for purpose, and also for emotional connection, then this loss is a major emotional knock for the brain. At this point, everything connected with the loss, the day it happened, who was around, the sights, the sounds, was stored in a snapshot by the brain. And any time that it recognises something that it pattern matches to those stored images, sounds or smells will trigger a new wave of emotion. In this triggered state we can act very strangely to an outsider who doesn’t have the same emotional reaction to it.
Trauma is a very personal experience
It is impossible to compare a trauma in severity from one person to another. What one person finds traumatic is not the same as another. If someone is stressed, their lives are unbalanced or they’re otherwise emotionally vulnerable, they’ll be much more likely to find an experience traumatic. An additional factor can be the amount of previous trauma that they have experienced. Many situations that are traumatic often fade away after a short while and cause no further problems. But one in five people will go on to suffer with full blown PTSD.
Conversely, you may think that if someone’s been through a really tough time that they’d be guaranteed to develop PTSD. However, this isn’t the case; as we have said one person’s bad experience is another person’s PTSD. It’s important to understand that if someone is struggling, it doesn’t mean in any way that they’re weak. It is simply the way that their brain perceived the situation at the time. And you have no way of being able to see that situation through their eyes.
Treatment for Trauma
You don’t have to accept that there is no treatment for trauma. There are therapies that address the traumas themselves, rather than just treat the symptoms. If you can re-process the trauma then the symptoms will not arise – it can be that simple. Make sure that any treatment you undertake will resolve the trauma rather than examine it and manage it. Remember that simply reliving the experience is likely to deepen it. The therapist should clearly understand about traumatic experiences and how the brain processes them, and they must use techniques that allow the brain to reprocess them.
I hope you have found this information about trauma helpful. As always, please share if you know someone who would benefit from reading it. For more information and useful downloads, head over to our website.
With warmest wishes