Let’s Talk About…PTSD and trauma responses

Counseling Center

The term “trauma” describes a variety of highly stressful, scary, or impactful experiences, and can include incidents such as the one-time occurrence of an accident, assault, or rape, or multiple incidents over a span of time, such as on-going emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.  

Unfortunately, traumatic experiences are common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, at least half of all adults in the U.S. will experience at least one trauma during their lifetime. Impacts of trauma can be different for different people and depend on what the event means to them.

So, what is a trauma response? According to the American Psychiatric Association (2013), trauma responses can include reactions to these experiences after they occur, such as: feelings of shame, guilt, and a lack of safety; difficulty connecting with others; a negative view of one’s self and others; and an increased risk for substance use, self-harm, and suicide. Survivors of trauma can also develop mental health disorders following these experiences, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD describes a collection of specific types of reactions to trauma: reoccurring, uninvited memories of the event; attempts to avoid reminders of the event; a low mood and negative thoughts; and an ongoing and easily activated stress response.

A trauma response is also what happens in our minds and bodies during a trauma. In his book, “The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment,” Babette Rothschild, MSW explains that during traumatic experiences, our nervous system will instantaneously decide for us whether we should fight, run, or freeze. Regardless of the specifics of the situation, our brains automatically choose the response that will give us the best chance for survival in the moment. You can think of it as our “emergency system” that activates when threats are detected.

For individuals who develop PTSD, this emergency system remains activated even after the danger has passed. Such individuals are constantly on high alert for threats to their safety. Things, places, people, smells, sounds, even their own emotions and physical sensations can remind them of the traumatic experience. These reminders enhance the activation of this response system and cause associated bodily and emotional reactions, as well as trigger specific memories of the trauma. This experience can also be understood as a trauma response, because the body automatically reacts as if this dangerous event were happening again. This is why recovery can take some time and does not necessarily begin when the original traumatic event has concluded. 

These reactions are the brain’s way of helping us to survive traumatic experiences. However, ongoing trauma responses can have a devastating effect on social, academic, and occupational parts of our lives and our general well-being. Those responses that help to survive the event actually become less helpful once the traumatic situation has ended. 

For survivors of trauma, whether they have these PTSD responses or others, help is available. Students can schedule an appointment with the Student Counseling Center at 503-352-2191 or [email protected]. Counselors are also available without an appointment during walk-in Monday through Friday from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. Individuals in crisis are also encouraged to utilize the Washington County Crisis Line at 503-291-9111 or the Crisis Text Line (text “CONNECT” to 741741), both available 24/7. For more information and resources visit www.pacificu.edu/counseling