A person experiences trauma when you are exposed to an event or ongoing stress that is beyond your capacity to master the experience. Some experiences are so traumatic that they are experienced as traumatic by almost everyone. For all children the loss of a loved person and physical or sexual abuse is traumatic. Some experiences are manageable to some people and traumatic to others.
What increases the risk that an event is experienced as traumatic? Events that are unexpected are more difficult to deal with than those that are anticipated. When adults are sick or tired they are more vulnerable to trauma. If early trauma (particularly childhood trauma) is repressed it makes a person vulnerable to experiencing current events as traumatic. These previous events can impact on our capacity to master current experiences particularly if the current stressor in some way resembles the original (childhood) trauma. After experiencing trauma as an adult unresolved childhood trauma, fears or other problems can reappear and complicate the person’s experience. The more previous (particularly childhood) trauma’s are repressed the less energy is available to deal with current stressors.
Overwhelming events or chronic strain that is beyond a person’s capacity for mastery set in motion pathological and infantile ways of trying to master what the person cannot master. After trauma all energies are used to deal with the trauma. Even sexual energy is used to master the trauma, therefor sexuality if often blocked and men often experience temporary impotence. After trauma some people regress to more helpless, dependent and childlike ways of functioning and long for care. One of the most severe mechanisms used after trauma is fainting or blocking of certain perception – in this way further stimulation is blocked because the person already feels overwhelmed. Dissociation is often used as a defense when people are traumatized. Typical emotions experienced after trauma are anxiety and rage. Often people experience episodes of anxiety and/or rage after the trauma, they then feel the emotions that could not be felt or discharged during the trauma. Disturbance in sleep is often experienced as a result of trauma. A state of relaxation is needed to sleep and after trauma the person is anxious. Typically there is repetition of the trauma in dreams. These dreams give the opportunity to discharge some of the tension. Obsessive thinking about the trauma is a way of trying to master the trauma. In situations of war or severe trauma temporary schizophrenia can develop. If reality becomes unbearable the person looses touch with reality. Because children are not able to identify and verbalize feelings their feelings are often experienced as psychosomatic (physical) symptoms.
There are mostly two ways in which people belatedly try to master the trauma. The one way is to withdraw and rest. This is done in order to try and gain energy for the task of belatedly mastering the trauma. The other way is belated discharged of actions and emotions related to the trauma.
(This article draws on the work of Otto Fenichel).