When Stress Becomes Trauma

aaHiroshige_TakanawaThere have been considerable advances in the last few years of our understanding of stress, its origin, its antecedents and the course of its manifestations. Significant progress has also been made in understanding what can help reduce its effects on functioning and mood. In spite of the barrage of advertising that promotes such “remedies” as prescription opioids and “benzos” and the ever-present allure of alcohol or marijuana, many people now know that exercise can work just the same, if not better, in reducing stress and anxiety.

There are certain stressors, however, that produce effects that go beyond and cross into a different domain, that of traumatic stress. Recent research places posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) within a theory of pathological anxiety, whereby the individual becomes vulnerable in two very important ways.

The first vulnerability precedes the traumatic stressor and is an innate, and therefore genetic, biological predisposition of the individual toward experiencing intense, negative emotions that can easily escalate into panic or degenerate into depression. This biological vulnerability can have many effects, chief among which is the inability to correctly assess the difference between true and false alarms and the subsequent inability to correctly decide on the most appropriate response between fight, flight or freeze. A true state of alarm arousal is the normal and most appropriate reaction to a truly threatening event or situation, i.e. what most people would find dangerous or risky. A falsely perceived state of alarm is one that causes a sudden and involuntary mobilization of the body and the mind’s defenses, in the presence of a situation or event that is objectively non threatening but is assessed as such by the individual who is genetically predisposed to an intense alarm reaction.

The second vulnerability is psychological in nature. Individuals who develop this sensitivity report a greatly reduced sense of control over events and situations. They tend to approach the present and imagine the future with anxious apprehension. Their mood is often characterized by an anxious state of exaggerated vigilance, whereby it is inherently hard to relax and enjoy life. Cognitively, they expect and anticipate the appearance of various threats, external and internal, with an attending constellation of negative emotions (fear, obsession, panic). This complex system of cognitive and emotional arousal usually promotes avoidance and triggers a near-constant state of worry.

When applied to traumatic stress, these vulnerabilities magnify the experience of a traumatic event and trigger a significantly more severe state of alarm at the time of the trauma. It is well known fact that some individuals appear able to remain relatively calm in the face of traumatic events, while others (who are more likely to have bio-psychological vulnerabilities to intense stressors) seem to quickly “fall apart” and be seemingly “destroyed” by the circumstance.

When the intense trauma passes, these individuals remain in a state of arousal that continues to trigger alarms in response to internal and external stimuli associated with the trauma, and their
initial response to it. For example, a sudden noise may trigger the stimulus associated with a bomb blast, or a burst of anger by another may trigger a stimulus associated with physical abuse. These learned responses to real or perceived threats produce a state of anxious apprehension which, in PTSD, includes the re-experiencing of emotions. This near-continuous state of alarm may, in time, be mitigated by coping mechanisms which generally consist of an individual’s efforts at avoiding the triggers of the learned alarms and the strong emotions associated with them. Intense avoidance of any stimulation that may results in a re-experience of the traumatic events and its associated emotions can eventually developed into a state of emotional numbing, where even those stimuli that should provoke a reaction do not.