Trauma – What happens to a person who has experienced trauma and why.


Quick overview: Trauma is a normal reaction to an abnormally difficult circumstance. The brain has an adaptive method of dealing with traumatic instances in the moment, which can have a negative impact on a person once the traumatic instance is no longer present. In this blog I will briefly explain what happens to a person who has been traumatized, why this happens, and then I will set the stage for future blogs in which I will describe the recovery processes. There are many aspects to the trauma recovery process such as support, empowerment, finding new meaning, and engaging in techniques which help to ‘rewire” the brain.

In the face of sever trauma a person will go into their fight or flight mode. These modes are adaptive for survival as they allow us to act quickly to protect ourselves from physical injury and/or from emotions that are too powerful to experience all at once. Usually a brain will ‘numb’ our emotions and senses while a person acts without wasting time to think.

  • The fight or flight response will inhibit a great percentage of our ‘normal functioning’. This means that during the experience a person might not be able to make meaning of the occurrence, or to successfully access their emotions relevant the occurrence.
  • We will also stop processing information about stimuli that is unrelated to survival – ex. If you had a stubbed toe you would probably not feel it during your fight or flight response.
  • Sometimes flight involves disassociation, which essentially means that a person leaves their body while the body endures the trauma.
  • There are often too many emotions for the person to process at the time of the trauma, and this can have a visible effects on the brain. Often professionals will describe the brain to be like an electrical circuit board – if you put too much information in at once (if you are flooded with emotions) the circuits can be damaged. The result is that a person will hold the emotions though they were never able to process them.


The brain of a traumatized individual will be hard wired to respond more quickly (to fight or flight responses – such as hyper vigilance or automatic responses) to events that remind the person of the traumatic experience (this is a simple explanation for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – PTSD).

  • This is neurologically substantiated – using brain imaging neurologist can see the result of trauma on the brain.
    • Your brain has many different connections (synapses) and some connections are turned on more than others (ex. if you smell your favorite food you will salivate and if you smelled that same food before you learned to love it, you might not salivate)
    • During trauma or extreme stress a hormone (cortisol) is released into the brain which will make your fight or flight responses ‘easier’ to turn on when a stimulus similar to the traumatic stimulus is present (ex this is why a war veteran will duck for cover (flight) upon hearing a loud crashing noise).


Every one has a stress response to trauma, but everybody will react differently and will be affected to differing degrees.

  • No one is immune to being traumatized, but some people do have a higher tolerance.
    • It might take a disaster like hurricane Katrina to cause a traumatic reaction in one person while another person could be traumatized by being in a 10 mile per hour car accident.
  • Cortisol is released in different amounts from person to person (this is a hormone released into the blood stream during a fight or flight response).
    • Cortisol is very important for every day functioning, but if levels are too high a person will feel as though they are in a constant state of stress.
  • A person who has not yet benefited from a trauma recovery process might feel as though they are in a constant state of stress
    • A cortisol feedback loop is created – meaning something in the environment ‘brings up’ the traumatic instance and the person engages in a fight or flight response and the body releases more cortisol… having more cortisol increases the likelihood that a person will engage in a fight or flight response again in the future…therefore the process also increases the chance of releasing even more cortisol.


When a person lives through a traumatic instance often times their whole world is turned upside-down and no longer makes sense to them – Existential turmoil.

  • A world that seemed fair, just, and safe will no longer feel that way and a person can struggle with what meaning to draw from their suffering and the apparent chaos that seems to dictate the world.


Often the concept of trust and safety are impacted when a person experiences trauma.

  • Even if the trauma had nothing to do with a loved one… a person might experience that no one is safe and no one can be fully trusted.
  • Child abuse is more common than we like to admit in this country and the abuse will generally have an impact on an individual’s ability to maintain positive relationships, as they grow older.


It is not uncommon for a person who has survived a traumatic experience to continually re-engage in experiences that are likely to let them re-experience the trauma again.

  • People do this under the unconscious belief that if they re-experience the trauma… they will make sense of it… and the experience will then cease to be traumatic.
  • This is why children that were either physically or emotionally abused often end up in abusive relationships.

Substance abuse is very common in individuals that have survived sever physical or emotional trauma.

  • Substance abuse can temporarily alleviate the symptoms of the stress cycle – unfortunately there are very often other negative side effects.
  • It is important to note that a greater percentage of substance abuse in this country is the abuse of prescription drugs though we hear more about alcohol and illegal drugs.


Recovery can involve many processes either together or separate. I will offer a list of recovery strategies that will be covered individually in future blogs.

  • Catharsis (emotional release), re-experiencing the event verbally with support and safety, techniques to reduce or eliminate the stress cycle, techniques for non-invasively re-wiring the brain, spiritual journeys, systematic desensitization (generally for less severe trauma such as falling off your bike), empowerment, making meaning, finding support, guided visualizations, re-building trust, family of origin work, finding different more adaptive reactions, and joining with a group of people who have survived similar trauma to name a few.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

William Hambleton Bishop

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

10 thoughts on “Trauma – What happens to a person who has experienced trauma and why.

  1. We’re a group of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community.Your site offered us with valuable information to work on.You have done a formidable job and our entire community will be grateful to you

  2. Very informative and well-written post.

    You explain how individuals will attempt to re-experience the trauma, believing it will help them make sense of the trauma, making it less traumatic. Does this method ever work?

    • Great question… the answer is yes… psychotherapy is effective for treating trauma… the reasons are a bit too complex for a simple response so I will briefly tell you what can happen (horribly over-simplified). re-experience the subject in a safe environment = brain processes subject different. apply personal meaning – existential recovery (yes, the meaning that we attribute to an event impacts our emotional reaction to the event), reflect on experience – increases reflective ability (which is somewhat of the opposite of ‘behaving or thinking’ without intention – this reduces automatic reactivity (ruminating and impulsivity can decrease), quite simply from a neurological perspective different parts of the brain are called upon to work with the traumatic event… this can reduce the fight or flight response as it disperses control to areas other than the amygdala… some research has suggested that trauma can be stored in one of the brain hemisphere and certain techniques (EMDR or really any bi-lateral stimulation) can be used to process the event with both hemispheres.

  3. My fiance was in the hospital (behavioral health), he had told the psychiatrist about the medication he.was taken which was Suboxone 8mg 3x’s a day(like methadone) and he didn’t give it to me for the 8 days he was there so he came off of it “cold turkey”. On the 7th day he experienced not withdraws (did not feel them atleast) he felt fight/flight and @ the same time he was also experiencing “hypertension crisis” due to withdraws & the the staff gav me clonodine which is 1 of the medication they may give u if you’re having “hypertension crisis”. My question is…he knew what he felt “fight/flight, an outer body experience” but he has been to hosp after hosp to doctors to psychiatrist & they all say it couldn’t have happened, does it seem like to anyone that it really did happen? Reading this blog gave me hope that it did afterall. Please enlighten me! Later, weeks later he started showing symptoms of what I just learned to be PTSD. Finally, after 5 psychiatric evaluations I know what my husband is going thru, I can place a name with it and know he’s not dying after all. Thank you

    • thank you for sharing… difficulties like this often arise as our fields are all just starting to work better together. trauma recovery (in my subjective opinion) is best handled with someone who is not required to use solely the medical model (especially if the fight or flight reaction is related to a medical setting) … I would suggest a psychotherapist (completely different training than a psychiatrist) I would also suggest reading some of my posts on ‘mindfulness’ if you would like to do some work without a paid profesional. In relation to what events or objects can elicit PTSD symptoms… I would guess that just about anything… our brain can create an association between any event or object etc and a fear responce… the association is not always ‘logical’… but strange things happen in life. thank you for reading

  4. Has some value but the old “fight or flight” paradigm is very inadequate…the most common response in both animals and humans is another ‘f’: freeze (the author hints at it when she describes flight involving dissociation where the body endures the trauma but the mind is not really present).

    (You don’t hear about it as much perhaps because it’s not as sensationalistic as running or fighting?)

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