Trauma is the result of overwhelm to your system. It's about fear, and your ability to cope. There's no time to think when facing a threat, your primary responses are instinctual. Peter Levine, Ph.D., author of the ground breaking book Waking The Tiger, has spent over 40 years studying stress and trauma. Responsible for many discoveries in the field, Levine observed animals in the wild that escape life-threatening events instinctually shake to discharge accumulated energy before going on their way as though nothing traumatic has happened. Similarly, you may have observed a dog or small wild animal shake it out after experiencing a threat. When you're faced with an overwhelming event your body must complete the same primitive process as the animals Levine studied: preparing for the event, reacting to it, then discharging the accumulated energy once the threat has passed. Trauma results when this process is thwarted in some way, such as not being able to react during the trauma or to discharge the accumulated energy after. (Levine, 1989)
When you're overwhelmed by an experience, without the capacity to fully release sensations and emotions that accompany the traumatic event, the undigested experience is stored on a cellular level. Instead of discharging the energies of the overwhelming experience through your body you may tense up, inhibit, or repress. You may feel under threat even when you’re not in danger as the incident gets triggered by sensations that are experienced in the present and activate emotional states. In this way, the experience of trauma is not about the past, it’s about a body that continues to behave and organize itself as if the experience is happening in the moment.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can emerge when trauma is beyond ones capacity to cope, especially when the traumas perceived to be or is life threatening. Most of us have heard the staggering numbers of PTSD in relation to war veterans yet many are unaware that the same numbers apply to victims of sexual assault and molestation. Approximately 50% of survivors develop PTSD. I believe the numbers are higher given most research doesn't take into account that PTSD can take years to surface in cases where the trauma has been suppressed. Because sexual assault is such a violation to ones entire being, body, mind and soul, the intense overwhelm drives many survivors to unconsciously suppress the trauma for a time, sometimes decades.
One person might develop PTSD and another who is exposed to the same or a similar trauma may not due to the internal and external resources available to each. Resources can be anything or anyone that supports and nurtures a sense of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well being. So if one individual came from a loving supportive family and the other grew up in an environment of physical and/or emotional abuse, the one who was abused will likely have far fewer resources available to help them cope with the trauma. They may not have a loving supportive family member or friend to reach out to for support (external), and they may have seldom or never felt safe within their body (internal).
If either is experiencing financial hardship they may not have the funds to pay for therapy, yet the one who’s more resourced may be aware of and able to ask for help at low fee training clinics, sliding scale therapist’s, spiritual counselor’s, AA or other alternatives. Fortunately you can get in touch with lost resources and build new ones as part of the healing process.
There are many other factors that contribute to how resilient you are and whether PTSD will develop after trauma, including the ability and opportunity to have taken some kind of action during the traumatic event without putting yourself at further risk of danger. Genetic inheritance (character strengths and traits), intergenerational trauma (trauma passed down in your DNA from your more recent ancestors), developmental trauma (C-PTSD), complex trauma (prolonged repeated experiences of interpersonal traumas), and oppression (sociocultural, institutional, and/or economic exclusion or marginalization) all contribute to how resilient you are.
The following video does a nice job of explaining PTSD and some of its symptoms:
If you're experiencing symptoms resulting from trauma take a few slow deep breaths as you acknowledge there's no shame in suffering from trauma or a diagnosis of PTSD. A diagnosis doesn’t have to be a life sentence; with proper treatment symptoms can improve or heal altogether. If you're symptoms are unmanageable it’s important you seek additional support such as individual therapy, group therapy, and in some cases a Psychiatrist. Since psychological issues are inseparable from what's occurring in your body, somatic work (integrating body, mind, soul) will aid in healing. Look for a therapist who specializes in working with trauma trained in SomaticExperiencing, Sensorimotor, or other somatic modalities.