Post-trauma Reactions as Signs of Strength

Understanding the Price of Survival

Copyright 2009, Pamela Woll

Resilience skills are powerful, but what about the events that overwhelm them?  What happens when stress and threat are extreme (like a disaster), long lasting (like violence in the community or abuse in the family), or both (like combat)?

The brain and body chemistry are organized to go through some powerful changes under stress and threat (see Brain Stuff), so we can stay alive, save others' lives, fight back, escape, or just endure.  These changes are automatic.  We don't choose them.  They're built to be far more powerful than our will, because the survival of the species depends on how well they work in all of us.  We may be able to control our behavior in crisis situations, but our bodies are still going to do what bodies do under extreme stress.

Of course, all these changes come at a price.  Often we pay this price later, when the threat is over—and sometimes long after it's over.  It might be a mild price like a tendency to shut down or a temporary case of the jitters, or a high price like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression.  This price can include the whole range of post-trauma reactions:

  • From exhaustion through anxiety
  • From having no emotions through overwhelming anger, sadness, or fear
  • From a sense of being empty and numb through an inability to sit still
  • From amnesia through flashbacks and nightmares
  • From cravings for stimulant drugs through cravings for substances that calm us down

Subpages (1): Brain Stuff