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The Effect of Trauma

When the brain perceives a threat, it responds based on biological and/or psychological systems. The two major responses to threat are dissociation, also known as freeze and surrender, and hyperarousal, also known as fight or flight.

When the brain activates these systems, there are changes in its development and organization. These changes affect the emotional, behavioral, cognitive, social and physiological behavior of the child. The actual response of each individual to threat varies tremendously.

Dissociation

According to Dr. Bruce Perry, dissociation is “the mental mechanism by which one withdraws attention from the outside world and focuses on the inner world.” It is a primary adaptive response that all children and most adults use. The level of dissociation depends upon the intensity or duration of the threatening situation. Low levels of dissociation can include daydreaming or gazing off into nowhere.

 

Hyperarousal

This response involves removing yourself either physically, psychologically or aggressively from a threat, or trying to flee from the situation.

 

Reminders of the Original Event

People are often faced with reminders of the original trauma that cause pain and anxiety. They may act stunned or numb, gaze off into nowhere or seem unfocused, evasive or unclear when answering a question. These responses occur because they are trying to dissociate from the original trauma. The more prolonged the trauma, the more pronounced the long-term chronic and potentially permanent changes in the emotional, behavioral, cognitive and physiological functioning of the child.

Children who make it through traumatic events and have a low level of fear are often impulsive, hypervigilant, hyperactive, withdrawn or depressed. They may also have sleep difficulties and anxiety.

 
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