Trauma. It’s one of those words that gets thrown around without ever really being explained. Derived from the Greek word for “wound,” trauma could refer to an overwhelming psychological experience or the psychological imprint left by such an experience. Either way, it’s important to know how to recognize trauma and post-traumatic stress and how to recover from them.

Trauma is caused by an overwhelming experience in which a person’s survival is threatened and/or their fundamental beliefs about themselves and the world are shattered. Sexual assault, military combat, child abuse, car accidents and natural disasters are well-known examples of traumatic events.

Lesser known instances of trauma involve what are called “attachment injuries.” Children’s development is extremely dependent on the attentiveness and responsiveness of their “attachment figures” (usually parents), and if an attachment figure is not attuned and responsive to the needs of a child, then, as far as that child’s brain is concerned, its survival is threatened and it will adapt accordingly.

Post-traumatic symptoms are painful and overwhelming, but, as scary as they are, they’re simply the result of the brain’s adaptation to traumatic situations. From an evolutionary perspective, this adaptation is an attempt to ensure the person’s survival, which is pretty much the brain’s number one priority.

Imagine that every brain has its own smoke detector. When it’s functioning properly, this smoke detector alerts us to legitimate threats and cues the release of protective firefighters who come and rescue us: heightened alertness, a pounding heart and restricted digestion to make sure we have plenty of energy to fight or run away, rage to help us fight off attackers, or, as a last resort if escape or self-defence aren’t possible, a freeze response like a deer in headlights.

Trauma hyper-sensitizes the smoke detector. At the slightest hint of smoke, these firefighters come rushing in to put out a fire that doesn’t actually exist.

People who have survived trauma therefore tend to struggle with anxiety, rage, concentration difficulties, digestive issues, feelings of disconnectedness and hypersensitivity to perceived threats. Understandably, survivors of trauma also tend to feel depressed, develop addictions as a means to escape their pain, and avoid anything that might trigger their smoke detectors.

Faced with such nightmarish symptoms, trauma survivors tend to imagine they’re broken. In reality, their brains have done exactly what they were supposed to do: adapt to threat and facilitate survival. Once upon a time, these adaptations made perfect sense and helped them survive. Unfortunately, such adaptations persist beyond the traumatic event and cause pretty major problems.

Recovery from trauma is essentially about retraining the brain to re-establish an internal sense of safety and leave behind survival adaptations that are no longer necessary. Of course, this is only possible when a person is externally safe. It’s easier said than done, but it’s precisely what good therapy can do.

If you are a survivor of trauma, your brain has done exactly what it was intended to do, and, as unbelievable as it may sound, recovery is possible.