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What Causes the Symptoms of Trauma-Related Disorders?

Jamie Marich, Ph.D., LPCC-S, LICDC-CS, RMT, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

This is a logical question to ask: Why do trauma and stress cause so many problems? People affected by trauma and stress may be asking this question in frustration.

sad womanIn this section, we will attempt to answer the question as concisely as possible. First, we'll cover some of the basics about how the human brain goes about processing life experiences. Knowledge of the human brain is rapidly growing due to many advancements in neurobiology and related fields of study. Neurobiology is a fascinating and promising area of research; however, these topics are beyond the scope of this article. In this section we provide just enough information about the human brain to help you answer that niggling little question, "Why?" The interested reader can dive more deeply into this topic by reviewing the References and Resources sections.

When Fadalia had signed up to participate in a research study on trauma (Marich, 2010), she could have never predicted the path it would take. Fadalia reflected back on her personal recovery journey: "Before treatment, my thoughts, feelings, and experiences were all tangled up like a ball of yarn; I needed something to untangle them." Fadalia is an Iranian-American survivor of childhood sexual trauma, fundamentalist spiritual abuse, with more than 20 unsuccessful attempts at treating her heroin addiction. She described the treatment experience that finally freed her from her addiction, and started her on the path of healing, as the forum for untangling this yarn. Taking this metaphor a step further, once the yarn was untangled, she was able to knit a beautiful sweater out of it, a demonstration of reintegration or post-traumatic growth. At the time of her recollections, she had been three and a half years clean and sober, the longest she'd ever achieved in her adult life.

Many survivors of trauma can connect with Fadalia's metaphor of tangles and crossed wires in their head without even realizing it. For instance, abduction and torture survivor Jaycee Dugard viewed her 2011 memoir, A Stolen Life, as an attempt to "unravel" the damage that was done to her and to her family (p. viii). For survivors struggling with the impact of trauma on their lives, these twists and tangles in the neuronal networks of the human brain tend to occur at the more primitive levels of the brain.