Psychological trauma is an experience of overwhelming and unbearable negative emotion. All trauma is stressful, although not all stress is traumatic. Trauma is very extreme, intense distress. A traumatic event can be a single experience, or an enduring or repeating event or series of events, that completely overwhelms a person'sability to cope or to integrate the memories, ideas and emotions that arise from the experience.

Trauma can be caused by a wide variety of events, but there are a few common aspects.

  • The events are unexpected.
  • The events are chaotic and psychologically overwhelming.
  • The person felt helplessly unable to prevent or mitigate the events.

    Traumatic experience devastates the person's understanding of the world and of their personal boundaries or human rights. A traumatized person will feel powerless, confused, and insecure. They may be in active fear of death or serious injury, or witness to the death or injury of others.  They may feel they have been betrayed by people or institutions they had counted on for survival or safety.

We are temporary, finite and fragile, but most of the time we only know this as an abstract, theoretical concept. When the knowledge of our mortality becomes experiential, our serenity is shaken. It may take some time, and some effort, to absorb this realization and return to a balanced and centered state.

The event itself matters much less than the person’s perception of it. Any situation that leaves a person feeling bereft, frightened and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. Experiences involving betrayal, verbal abuse, or any major loss can be just as traumatizing as a life-threatening catastrophe, especially when they happen to children.

Whether the threat is physical or psychological, trauma results when an experience is so overwhelming that people freeze like the proverbial deer-in-the-headlights, go numb, become dazed or disoriented, or disconnect from what’s happening. This automatic response protects us from the terror we feel, but it also prevents us from moving on when the situation changes.

If not resolved, trauma-related emotions get buried deep within, hidden from conscious awareness. They smolder there, intense as ever, influencing the way traumatized people perceive the world, react to everyday situations, and relate to others. With any further pressure on the fragile structure containing these horrific memories, they may explode.

Psychology offers several staged models of human growth. Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), widely considered to be the father of Humanistic Psychology, proposed one of the simplest, most useful, and best known of these. In Maslow’s model, survival needs come first, followed by security needs. When these needs are satisfied, people are more able to approach the “higher” issues of fulfilling work, intimacy in relationships, self-actualization, and, ultimately, spiritual growth.

Please remember that this is a model, not a fact of life. Resilient people can and have transcended trauma. We have the testimony of Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) and others that even in the Nazi concentration camps, some people organized chamber music groups or Talmud study groups to help themselves survive a traumatic situation emotionally and spiritually intact. The intact preservation of the Tables of Ifa by oral transmission among slaves who endured the multiple traumas of kidnapping, the Middle Passage, and the sugar plantations also gives testimony to the triumphant magnificence of the human spirit.

Yet Maslow’s model does hold for most of the people most of the time. People don’t usually worry about higher goals until they are pretty sure they have food and shelter for today (survival) and for tomorrow (security), but neither will they be fully satisfied by simple survival or security. Happy people are those whose live fully on all levels.

In that context, traumatic experience tends to push a person’s attention back to the raw and primal needs of survival and security.

Vulnerability to Trauma

Major disasters like hurricanes affect large numbers of people. Some are traumatized; others are not. Why does the same event traumatize one person and not another? There is no clear answer to this question, but it is likely that one or more of these factors are involved:

  • the severity of the event – trauma is extreme distress.
  • the individual’s personal resiliency.
  • the individual's personal history (whether or not they consciously recall it)
  • the larger meaning the person gives to the event (which may not be immediately known), any emotional associations they may have with the event.
  • coping skills, values and beliefs held by the individual (some of which may have never been identified).
  • reactions and support, or lack of support, from family, friends, and/or professionals.

Also, many people struggling with trauma suffer from stress pileup, an accumulation of traumatic stress over their lifetime. People can carry loads of stress and still function adequately for a long time. But eventually something, although perhaps small in itself, becomes the proverbial "last straw," overloading their capacity and snapping their resilience. Their defenses may then collapse, allowing suppressed memories of earlier trauma to surface in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Keeping the idea of stress pileup in mind, coping with trauma entails (1) learning to regulate emotional distress more effectively and (2) minimizing exposure to further stress to the extent humanly possible. Both of these strategies require conscious, intentional, and lifelong self-care.

Typical reactions to trauma

When the traumatic event is over and the initial shock subsides, continuing reactions vary from one person to another. Please remember that these are initially normal reactions to abnormal events, although they may cause problems later if they are not resolved and healed. Here are some typical responses to trauma:

  • Emotions and moods become intense and unpredictable. People may become more irritable than usual. Their moods may swing back and forth dramatically. They might be especially anxious or nervous, agitated or depressed.
  • Thoughts and behavior patterns are affected by the trauma. They might have repeated and vivid memories of the event. These flashbacks may occur for no apparent reason and may evoke physical reactions such as rapid heart beat or sweating. Alternatively, they may have amnesia. They may find it difficult to concentrate or make decisions, or become more easily confused. Their sleep and eating patterns also may be disrupted.
  • Recurring emotional reactions are common. Anniversaries of the event, such as at one month or one year, as well as reminders such as aftershocks from earthquakes or the sound of sirens, can trigger upsetting memories of the traumatic experience. These 'triggers' may be accompanied by fears that the traumatic event will be repeated.
  • Interpersonal relationships often become strained. Greater conflict, such as more frequent arguments with family members, coven-mates, and coworkers, is common. On the other hand, people might become withdrawn and isolated and avoid their usual activities.
  • Physical symptoms may accompany the extreme distress. People may experience headaches, nausea, or chest pain severe enough to send them to a doctor. Pre-existing medical conditions may worsen due to the stress.

Bridges to Healing Trauma

In general, the healing process involves two interrelated steps:

1. Processing the memory of the trauma

Traumatic memories are very different from normal memories. Extreme stress functions like a pause button on the brain, preventing people from integrating traumatic experience into a coherent memory of what happened. Without a “story” that can be revisited and interpreted, it’s impossible to put the experience into context or into the past.

As a result, traumatic memories are relived rather than simply remembered. They may exist only in split-off fragments—raw emotions, bodily sensations, frightening images, smells and sounds, physical pain—that feel just as real, or surreal, as they did during the original trauma. Reconnecting these emotional fragments, creating a coherent narrative, allows people to process the memory and put it into perspective at long last.

Caution: remembering traumatic events can be retraumatizing. If the trauma was severe, or the symptoms are long-lasting and disturbing, it may be best to work with a therapist who specializes in resolving trauma.

2. Discharging fight-or-flight energy

When a threat is so overwhelming that survival seems impossible, the natural response is to freeze. This frozen state of shock traps the intense energies of the fight-or-flight response in the body. Some part of the person's mind seizes up. The distress is also carried and encoded in the body.

The symptoms of trauma can be understood as the result of the body’s attempts to contain or control this pent-up energy. One of the first steps in healing is to discharge this energy in a physical way, such as:

  • Trembling
  • Shaking
  • Crying
  • Sweating
  • Agitated breathing
  • Laughing

Since trauma comes from a sense of extreme helplessness in the face of life-threatening danger or intolerable personal violation, full healing requires not just recovery, but re-empowerment.

Even without a therapist, here are some things traumatized people can do – with a little help from loved ones and friends – to begin to restore emotional well being and a sense of control following a disaster or other traumatic experience:

  • Learn what to expect as a result of trauma. Understanding that some of these symptoms are normal reactions to an abnormal situation helps defuse fear that can turn the symptoms into additional stressors.
  • Don’t rush healing. Anticipate that this will be a difficult period. Allow time to mourn the losses and the pain. Try to ride out mood swings with some patience.
  • Reflect on the traumatic event in whatever ways feel comfortable -- such as by talking with family or close friends, or keeping a journal.
  • Ask for support from loved ones and friends who will listen and empathize with your situation. But keep in mind that a person’s support system may be weakened if their close ones also have experienced or witnessed the trauma, or if they are experiencing secondary traumatization.
  • Find a local support group. People who have had similar traumatic experiences can help validate experiences and navigate healing. This is useful for any traumatized person, and even more valuable to those without a Circle, close kin, or good friends nearby. Try to find a group facilitated by someone who is wise, compassionate, skilled, and ethical.
  • Establish or reestablish routines such as eating meals at regular times and following an exercise program.
  • Take some time off from the demands of daily life for hobbies or other enjoyable activities.
  • Avoid major life decisions such as switching careers or jobs, if possible, or beginning or ending any major relationships, because change is stressful – and because your ability to make good decisions may be temporarily impaired in the immediate aftermath of trauma.
  • Take care of your physical health. Doing so aids recovery just as it builds resiliency. Eat well-balanced meals and get plenty of rest. People who are having trouble sleeping may be able to find some relief through relaxation techniques or herbal teas. Avoid alcohol and drugs.

To learn more:


  • Baranowsky, Anna et. al. Trauma Practice: Tools for Stabilization and Recovery  Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe, 2005
  • Figley, Charles Helping Traumatized Families San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1989
  • Figley, Charles and Hamilton L. McCubbin Stress and the Family: Coping with Catastrophe NY: Brunner/Mazel, 1983
  • Yoder, Carolyn The Little Book of Trauma Healing Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2005

This book is published by the Mennonite Church, a traditional peace church. It is short, inexpensive, accessible, and very helpful.

 Web Sites

This article provides an excellent overview of trauma