The word ‘Trauma’ comes from the Greek ‘traumatos’, meaning wound. First used in the late 17th Century (according to the OED), when medicine was establishing itself as a formal science, the word trauma referred to a physical bodily wound or injury. Only with the rise of psychiatry in the late 19th Century was the medical term abstracted to ‘psychic’ or emotional wounds (‘psychic’ being used in its original context, as ‘spirit/soul’ – the part that flies unseen). The gradual development of an understanding of psychological trauma through the 20th Century is outlined by Judith Lewis Herman in the first section of Trauma and Recovery (1997), and more recently by Bessel van der Kolk in his book The Body keeps the Score (2014). It has always taken a war to display the trauma response so dramatically that professionals have had to take notice. After WWI it was called ‘shell-shock’, because doctors thought the response was just a temporary shock from shell explosions. After WWII, the trauma response was recognised as being related to the entire experience, and was referred to as ‘battle fatigue’. It was only after the Vietnam War that the syndrome began to acquire its present name, at first ‘catastrophic stress disorder’ and finally ‘posttraumatic stress disorder’. (see The fact that women had been exhibiting PTSD symptoms for decades, due to sexual abuse, did not draw enough attention to honour their condition with a suitable label. Early psychiatry continued using the ancient term ‘hysteria’ (deriving from the greek word for the female uterus) for women exhibiting certain kinds of dysfunctional behaviour. Not until the feminist movement in the 1970s did this begin to change.

By the late 20th Century, the field of neuroscience (study of the nervous system) was greatly enhanced by the development of MRI and fMRI scanning technology, allowing a far more sophisticated study of the brain.  As we gain totally new insights into the working of the human brain, what we are coming to realise is that the division between medical/physical trauma and psychological trauma (existing somewhere in the non-physical ‘mind’) is a mistake, one that only developed because the physical mechanics of the mind had been invisible.

In fact, psychological trauma is as physical an injury as is a wound to the physical body. It is just more difficult to locate the physical site/s of the wound, due to our current level of understanding of neural circuitry. Nevertheless, the wound exists in physical space. This is the driving message I want to convey in my coverage of the subject of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, whether acquired in childhood or adulthood. That it is a physical injury to the body. The first line of injury takes place in the brain and the nervous system, with secondary, later injuries developing in sub-systems such as the digestive, endocrine, skeletal and muscular systems.

The wound or wounds of traumatic experience need to be helped to heal just as systematically as one would heal a broken leg. The strategies and techniques are just as definable as the medical equipment needed by the doctor who sets and plasters a broken leg. Likewise, if the correct procedures are followed, the organism that we call ‘a body’ knows exactly what to do to heal and recover, just as surely as the broken leg doesn’t have to be told how to knit the bone matter together or close the gaping flesh wound. Our body knows how to heal – it just needs to be given the right environment and conditions to do it.


More on Trauma

What is Trauma?

The Role of Memory in Trauma

The Neurobiology of Psychological Trauma

An Evolutionary Model of Response to Danger

The Brain’s “Information Processing System”

Further Resources and Reading (Trauma)


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