Why Physical Trauma is Not Required to Make You a Victim of PTSD

Posted byCounseling WiseonApril 8, 2019

PTSD is the acronym for the condition of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The term was originally associated with people who experienced trauma through war.

Oftentimes, people still think that they must be victims of war or at least physical trauma in order to qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD. However, that’s not true at all.

In fact, many people struggling with the symptoms of PTSD have never been through physical pain. The body and mind can react to emotional and psychological pain with as much intensity as they do to physical pain.

What Is PTSD?

PTSD is a set of symptoms. Furthermore, they occur as a result of trauma. The trauma can be psychological or physical. It can be a one-time event or something prolonged and recurring. In fact, you don’t even have to experience the event yourself; you can be a witness to the event.

Regardless of the specific details, the event causes a reaction in the brain and body. Moreover, the reaction causes symptoms.

Those symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Anger and/or irritability

  • Avoidance of things that trigger reminders of the trauma

  • Distorted thinking such as “the world is never safe”

  • Enhanced startle response

  • Flashbacks

  • Guilt and/or shame

  • Intrusive memories of the traumatic event

  • Loss of interest in activities

  • Nightmares

Trauma and the Nervous System

The body has a nervous system. This system responds to external stimuli. Therefore, when we experience trauma, the nervous system reacts. The nervous system, or more specifically, the autonomous nervous system, regulates what’s happening inside of the body.

Two Key Parts of the Nervous System

There are two parts of the autonomous nervous system:

  1. The Parasympathetic Nervous System helps control the body’s rest functions. It works to decrease the heart rate, relax the muscles, constrict the pupils, and digest food.

  2. The Sympathetic Nervous System, in contrast, responds when the body needs to move. It speeds up the heart rate, tenses the muscles, dilates the pupils, and opens the lungs.

When we experience danger, the Sympathetic Nervous System responds. This is the part of the body responsible for the “fight or flight” response. However, when we experience trauma—particularly when prolonged—this part of the nervous system stays active for too long.

At the same time, the Parasympathetic Nervous System still needs to do its job, so it can compete for the body’s attention during prolonged trauma. Sometimes during trauma, the body will freeze, as if it doesn’t know which system to allow to work.

Trauma Lives in the Body

The nervous system is greatly impacted during trauma. It’s as though the trauma keeps living in the body even after the experience of the trauma has ended. Put another way, the nervous system keeps trying to respond to the danger, even though you might actually now be out of danger.

The Body Doesn’t Differentiate

The nervous system responds the same way whether the danger or trauma, was physical or emotional. Let’s consider the case of domestic abuse in the home.

Imagine that your father was very physically abusive to you. As a result, every time you saw him, it activated your nervous system response. With PTSD, even thinking about your father can remind you of the abuse and take your body back to that experience. It responds as though you are still being physically abused.

Now imagine that your father never physically hurt you. However, he violently abused your brother in front of you. Your body would respond in the same way when you were a witness to that abuse. You would still be traumatized, and your nervous system would respond accordingly. Likewise, you could develop a PTSD response, even though you were never physically hurt.

As you can see, there are many different types of trauma. They can all result in PTSD. However, you aren’t alone. Make an appointment today to learn how therapy can help you work through trauma.


For more information about PTSD treatment, please take a look at my PTSD Counseling page.

I am here to partner with you to transform your life. If you are ready to partner with me to transform your life, please contact me to set up an appointment or for a free 30 – minute phone consultation.

About the Author

Gay A. Hunter, M.Div., LPC-S, is a licensed professional counselor who graduated from Brite Divinity School at TCU. She is committed to partner with you to transform your relationship with God. She owns a private practice in Fort Worth, TX. She specializes in online therapy. She is trained in Cognitive Processing Therapy for PTSD and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. To find out more about Gay click here