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Wait, trauma symptoms are adaptive?

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We often think of trauma symptoms as something to be cured, when in fact they’re the cure run amok. Trauma isn’t the infection, it’s like the fever that tries to address the infection.

In 1918-19, the world saw the worst pandemic in history. Spanish flu swept across the globe in three waves, killing more people than WWI had. In most epidemics, including influenza, the highest rate of mortality occurs in really old and really young people, because they have the weakest immune systems. However, in this case, young, healthy adults died at an even higher rate than the elderly. Why?

Actually, it was that strong immune system that did them in. When the virus was detected in the lungs, their bodies launched an overzealous defense to block the disease, pouring fluid filled with white blood cells and other disease fighting agents into the lungs, and the end result was that they drowned. Like the resulting pneumonia, trauma symptoms are fierce response to a threat, rather than an infection.

Yesterday there was an article in the New York Times by David Bornstein about schools that recognize ways that trauma impacts children’s behavior.  Certain educators are finding ways to respond that are more effective than punishment. They recognize the types of life events that cause traumatic stress and that change, noise and feeling out of control can all trigger a defensive response. Since these are things that occur throughout the day in any given classroom, educators are able to be more sensitive to how these impact their students. They are also able to recognize that acting out behaviors are not defiance or poor discipline to be corrected, but the “cure run amok:” the child is reacting defensively to something that his or her brain experiences as threatening.

One thing I’m most impressed with in the programs that are described are the interventions that are used with the children.  One example is that a particular child is told that if he can’t feel his body, he can choose from some activities that get him moving and interacting (quietly and non-disruptively) with his environment.  This is a really clever way to help a child assess whether he is disassociated and then ground himself so that he can be present and learn. A lot of the work in trauma therapy with adults is helping them to do just this so that they can better function in their jobs, relationships and general life activities.

The more that we are able as a society to recognize that trauma is not an illness, but a response to an overwhelming event, the more that trauma survivors who have post-traumatic stress will be able to talk about their symptoms and find relief.


Wait, trauma symptoms are adaptive?

Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

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APA Reference
Staggs, S. (2013). Wait, trauma symptoms are adaptive?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 14 Nov 2013
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