Understanding Trauma

Key Concepts

There are many different forms of trauma and many different ways that trauma can impact us. It can be scary to not know why we are feeling the way we are. So, this section will explain what trauma is and how it shows up and impacts all of our systems.

Some forms of trauma may be:
  • Direct or indirect harm;
  • Being threatened with harm, especially over a period of time;
  • Witnessing harm being done to or by others;
  • Intentional or accidental harm by others;
  • Learning that a traumatic event occurred to a close family member or close friend; or
  • Experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of a traumatic event.

Trauma is an experience that causes physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or social harm, including lack of sleep, depression, anxiety, loss of appetite, nightmares, heightened senses (always feeling like you’re on alert), a strain on friendships and relationships, a feeling of disconnection to yourself or beliefs, and more.

Trauma can impact your:
  • Behavior (feeling numb, distant, overwhelmed, anxious, etc)
  • Memory
  • Cognitive Abilities (having difficulty focusing, completing tasks, etc.)
  • Physical health (stomach pain, gastrointestinal issues, headaches)
Trauma also has an impact on your brain. When a traumatic experience occurs, these areas of the brain are impacted:
  • Prefrontal Cortex – The “Director” that provides executive functions, i.e. focuses attention based on goals and tasks for a situation, engages in logical reasoning and thinking through how to handle things with steps, monitors our own behavior, inhibits impulses, and controls emotions. “Top down” thinking.
  • Amygdala – The “smoke detector” that is always on, and monitors for signs in the environment of danger. The amygdala controls the fear circuitry in the brain.
  • Hippocampus – The “hard drive” where the brain consolidates encoded memories into long term storage.
  • Thalamus – The “sensory area” that translates sights, sounds, tastes, and smells into the language of the brain.
So what happens:
  • The fear circuitry from the amygdala takes control due to a flood of stress hormones meaning the “smoke detector” can remain on high alert even after the safety threat is gone.
  • A loss of prefrontal regulation changes attention and focus to “bottom-up.” This can make it extremely difficult to focus, think logically and can impact your behavior.
    • For example, your brain may shift into survival reflexes and engage in self-protection habits even if they are potentially harmful or detrimental to yourself or others.
  • Trauma can also cause altered memory encoding meaning your memory of a traumatic event may be fuzzy, not in chronological order while some memories may be extremely vivid - especially those connected to senses (for example, you may be able to remember the smells or sounds clearly while drawing a blank on time, faces, etc.).

Printed with permission from: UNLV Care Center
Title: Student's Guide to Radical Healing zine
First edition: April 2020
Second edition: May 2021

Coping with Trauma

It is important that if you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, dating/domestic violence, or stalking that you make a plan for healing and recovery from the traumatic incident. The emotional scars from a violent incident of abuse or assault can last for a long time after what happened to you. Like a physical wound, an emotional wound is going to cause you more pain and discomfort directly after the incident occurred. As time passes and with the right kind of support and services, the wound will begin to heal and eventually your feelings will become less intense. There could be times that you will think about what happened even after you feel you have done everything you needed to do to heal. Developing positive coping mechanisms will help you to cope with intrusive thoughts or feelings associated with the assault or abuse you experienced.

You may experience symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Many people associate PTSD with soldiers returning from the trauma experienced from the violence of war or conflict. What we know now is that PTSD can be experienced by anyone who has experienced a traumatic event. Some symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Reliving – flashbacks, hallucinations, nightmares of the incident
  • Avoiding – avoiding people, places, things, or memories that remind the trauma
  • Excessive arousal – increased alertness, anger, fits of rage, irritability, or hatred, difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Intrusive negative distressing thoughts or feelings such as guilt
  • Flat affect
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, please consider reaching out for help. A trained therapist or support counselor can help you sort through your feelings and help you make a plan for recovery.

There are therapists available at CSB/SJU at no cost to students by calling 320-363-3236.

There is support counseling and one to one advocacy available by reaching out to Central MN Sexual Assault Center at 320-251-4357.

To talk with an advocate about dating or domestic violence, you may call Anna Marie's Alliance at 320-253-6900.

For suggestions on how to recover from a traumatic incidenct of abuse/assault: Victim/Survivor Resources - Coalition Against Sexual Assault & Rape in MN that Trains Advocates (