War, terrorist disasters, childhood sexual abuse. What do all these have in common?
All can cause changes in the human brain resulting from trauma. Trauma is trauma, no matter how it occurs. The neurobiological results are the same.
What constitutes trauma? First it must be an event that is intolerable. Second, it is inescapable. When the human brain is faced with an event so terrible it cannot be tolerated and from which there is no escape, human survival has always depended on the brain’s ability to undergo changes. How does one survive a war zone, famine, child abuse? One of these adaptations is amnesia. The human brain is capable of forgetting something terrible happened. The hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with memory actually atrophies from lack of use. The victim of trauma may exist in a fog or with no memory of the traumatic events.
There is a downside to forgetting. Whatever we do not remember consciously we are doomed to experience unconsciously. Nightmares, flashbacks, rage and depression result. All of the emotions connected to the original suppressed traumatic event now burst forth triggered by innocent stimuli. The sound of a car back firing can send the war veteran diving under the coffee table. The screech of brakes will cause the person who survived a terrible car accident to panic. Ice cubes tinkling in a glass may awaken in the incest victim all the fear she felt as her alcoholic father climbed the stairs to her bedroom.
A pounding heart and rushes of fear are common to anyone who has been traumatized whatever the original cause.