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Why Do People Have Such Different Reactions to Similar Trauma?

Danielle Dahl, Lead Contributor

I am the oldest of six siblings, and we each experienced similar traumatic childhoods. However, each of us grew into adults with very different trauma responses.

It has always fascinated me how the same sort of problems like parental neglect, abandonment, and verbal and emotional abuse, can cause such different trauma responses. So much so, that someday soon I will write a dissertation about it for my doctorate.

While this article won’t meet the rigors of a scientific study on why people respond differently, it will answer several questions and offer a few theories or questions for further thought.

“Trauma is personal. It does not disappear if it is not validated. When it is ignored or invalidated the silent screams continue internally heard only by the one held captive. When someone enters the pain and hears the screams healing can begin.” ― Danielle Bernock, Emerging With Wings: A True Story of Lies, Pain, And The LOVE that Heals

Why Do People Have Such Different Reactions to Similar Trauma

What is complex trauma?

Before delving into the complexities of varying trauma responses it is important to understand what a trauma response is, and how they can vary depending on the type of trauma suffered.

Childhood trauma can lead to a type of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder referred to as Complex PTSD, or simply cPTSD. That is because the trauma exposure “is prolonged and/or repeated, or consists of multiple forms, that also occurs under circumstances where escape from the trauma is difficult or impossible (e.g., childhood abuse).”

The trauma responses to events that cause cPTSD are similar to those of PTSD however, they add on another layer. cPTSD is also characterized by “disturbances in self-organization (DSO)”. According to Hyland et al., (2017) “These DSO symptoms reflect three essential symptom clusters: (1) affective dysregulation (AD), (2) negative self-concepts (NSC), and (3) disturbances in relationships.”

“The greater a child’s terror, and the earlier it is experienced, the harder it becomes to develop a strong and healthy sense of self.” ― Nathaniel Branden, Six Pillars of Self-Esteem

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These clusters represent ways people cope with trauma

Affective dysregulation means that a person is excessively reactive to negative stimuli and responds to situations with anger, aggression, and irritability.

In the study by Hyland (2017) and his fellow researchers, participants were asked one item from the PTSD screening measure regarding “experiencing emotional detachment from others and surroundings.”

They were also asked one item from a separate personality questionnaire, “are you easily angered and often hot-tempered.” Between me and my five siblings, there are three that definitely struggle with this, one who is kind of borderline, and the other two are no more irritable or angry than the rest of society.

A negative self-concept is often characterized by having low-self esteem, expecting failure, lacking motivation, and looking for the easy way out.

People suffering from NSC often lack confidence in social situations, lack an awareness of the world, and have trouble setting goals (make ones that are unrealistic or too low).

This isn’t an occasional moment of doubt, but rather a way of looking at the world. Again, my sibling group is divided here, and not evenly.

I think the two biggest reasons why people respond to the same type of trauma differently comes down to two things that are difficult to quantify: their perception of events and their internal resiliency.

Perspective

Elyssa Barbash Ph.D. reminds us why perception is so important, “Perspective is the main factor in determining how an event resonates with you, how you feel about a situation, and how you will remember what happened.”

Even though you and a sibling, or even you and a stranger, may have both experienced similar events, if your perspective is different, chances are the way your reality has been shaped will also be different. After all, as the old saying goes, “perception is reality.”

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For me, the experience of a custodial kidnapping at age four from my grandmother’s house was a much different reality than it was for my sister who was an infant.

Our perspectives during our childhood were always very different, because of so many factors. The factors include things like memories, relational dynamics, bonding, different expectations, and even our distinct personalities.

All of these things play a role in why I perceive my trauma one way, and she perceives hers differently. They also might explain why her response differs greatly from mine.

“Childhood trauma does not come in one single package.” ― Asa Don Brown

Resilience

This is a word we hear a lot, whether we are talking about trauma, even life in general. Just what is resiliency? 

Psychologists define resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors.”

Everyone has demonstrated resiliency at some point in their lives. We have all bounced back from something. However, there are some people who seem to be so much more resilient than others.

This is often the case with trauma survivors. Some are like freight trains refusing to let anything stop them and others seem to have very little resilience at all. Resilience is a trait that can be built upon by practicing certain behaviors like:

  • Prioritizing relationships and focusing on building a good support system
  • Taking care of yourself
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Help others
  • Be proactive

It is important to know that those people who exude a ridiculous amount of resilience are not unaffected by things. They still suffer emotional distress and feelings of just giving up. They just have learned how to manage their thoughts and behaviors in a different way.

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“I had been fortified by trauma, the way a bone, once broken, grows back stronger than it had been.” ― Charles Blow, Fire Shut Up in My Bones

Understanding how perspective and resiliency work gets us one step closer

Knowing that a person’s perspective and their attitude about being resilient will play a large role in how they respond to trauma gives us a starting point to examine when questioning why some people develop addiction problems in the face of trauma and others become rigid perfectionists.

It may also help us understand why some people allow themselves to be enabled and carried along, while others insist on doing everything themselves and not trusting anyone. Each of these responses is one side of the trauma response coin, and sadly one isn’t really better than the other.

That person who is suffering from addiction may lose out on relationships and the quality of their lives. However, it is also likely that the perfectionist will also lose important relationships because they alienate people and are “hard to love.” Each are maladaptive in their own ways.

The most important lesson I have learned while researching these questions is that no one’s trauma is truly the same because each individual perceives things differently.

Trauma responses are not created equal because no two people are the same. I have heard “I am not you” a lot in my life, and I have just started to understand what that means.

We may be able to arrive at some kind of scientific reason why people have different responses to trauma, but the answer might also just be as simple as we are all different.

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