Stress, anxiety or trauma? What's the difference?


Stress? Anxiety? Or Trauma?


If you are alive, still breathing and have got half a clue about what's been going on in the past year you are most likely suffering some of the symptoms of trauma. Trauma is not something you can talk away, drink away, relax away or distract yourself to avoid.

As trauma specialist Dr Bessel Van der Kolk  says "“Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then—it’s the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside people. Trauma isn’t something that lives outside of the person.”

So that indigestion that plagues you, the bouts of constipation, the tingling in your fingers, the back pain, the TMJ and another score sheet of symptoms of our inability to adapt and process stress can be attributed to trauma.

The spectrum of what trauma does, ranges from  body aches and pains and disturbances in daily functions that we often pop ‘over the counter remedies” for, to the acts of violence and rage we all too often witness in modern society.




STRESS, is the mindset that a certain set of circumstances should not be happening.


ANXIETY, is the mindset that something should be happening that isn’t.


Both of these states can be mediated through the prefrontal cortex  by shifting our attention away from the thoughts. You can do that through meditation, breathing or reading a book or watching television, doing yoga or going for a walk. Therapy helps people understand why they are thinking the way they are thinking so they can change it.


TRAUMA,  on the other hand is an instinctual response. It happens in the brain stem and limbic system and its automatic. It’s hard wired. Trauma is off and running before the prefrontal cortex can intervene.


As living beings our nervous systems are hard wired to survive. In the face of real or perceived danger we fight, run or freeze. Taken literally most of us don't know that much of our behaviour includes some nuance of these three states. Our culture teaches us to override our sensory awareness and as a result we get numb both to our own internal feelings and sensations. That’s why trauma can be so difficult to recognise.


Add a pandemic, social isolation, a political meltdown in the country next door and you have enough fodder for activation of  trauma . Heck..a scroll through Facebook these days usually has my shoulders up around my ears and I'm left holding my breath!


If you've been in an accident, been to war, had surgery or have had a childhood with abuse, neglect or illness you are likely to be dragging the weight of trauma around behind you.


Signs you are suffering from trauma:


  • difficulty concentrating?
  • daily function is impaired ?
  • startle easily?
  • rouble remembering things?
  • digestive issues?
  • muscle tension?
  • difficult memories that won't go away?
  • avoidance of people, places or things?
  • using drugs or alcohol to manage stress?



TRE…there is help.



I just spent my weekend learning TRE.. a technique developed by David Bercelli for dealing with trauma. After working in war zones and witnessing how people processed trauma he began to wonder that if humans were reflexively wired to respond to trauma through the startle reflex where they curl into a ball when alarmed then nature must also have designed a mechanism to release this.


He was holding a young child in a bomb shelter in the middle east and noticed that after the bombs would go off the chid would curl into a foetal position and then start to shake. The children would shake and tremor while the adults would stoically hold themselves together.


He came to the conclusion that it was the tremoring that allowed the body to discharge the incomplete motor pattern of fight , flight or freeze.


Bercelli’s technique has been adopted by the military to help war veterans mitigate the effects of PTSD.



Somatic Experiencing

Steven Levine, the developer of Somatic Experiencing says that trauma is an incomplete motor program of fight, flight or freeze. In his technique practitioners help people with trauma to notice the sensations in their bodies and then notice the physical urges they create to allow the FFF (fight, flight, freeze) patterns to complete.


Most people in the trauma field will tell you that talk therapy...traditional psychotherapy is ineffective at dealing with trauma although can help understand and change behaviours once the trauma is identified.



Somatic Experiencing