Why Trauma Happens

Trauma is, by definition, an overwhelming experience. Medical doctors call something “physical trauma” when it overwhelms the structure of the body. A stab wound “overwhelms” the integrity of the skin so much, it breaks. A four-wheeler landing on top of you “overwhelms” your bones and ligaments, and they break. But the mind also has a structure which, under the right amount of stress, can “break.”

The mind has a structure which, under the right amount of stress, can “break.”

That’s why psychologists use the word “trauma” to refer to mental injuries survivors sustain when they undergo experiences so severe, something inside them breaks. This article will explain how pre-traumatic qualities can either increase or decrease one’s likelihood to be traumatized, and how that likelihood interfaces with severely stressful events.  

Resilience = Control + Competence

Your likelihood of being traumatized by a stressful event is predicted by two factors: (1) the amount of control you have over the source of stress, and (2) the amount of competence you have in engaging that stress.

Your likelihood of being traumatized is predicted by whether you can achieve (1) control and (2) competence under severe stress.

The Navy compared the levels of adrenocortical, a stress hormone, of experienced F-4B Phantom II pilots with their radar intercept officers (RIO) before and after landing practice. The pilots were in active, “executive” control of the aircraft, and the RIOs were not in control. Before the flight, the RIOs had significantly higher adrenocortical levels, but immediately after landing, the pilots had higher adrenocortical levels.[1]

This indicates that before the flight, those who had no control (RIOs) were more stressed, and those who had control and competence were more calm. After the flight, the pilots’ heightened levels of adrenocortical were likely due to the heightened focus required by the event.

Even when an attack meant a threat of death by physical mutilation, Special Forces soldiers’ cortisol levels lowered, because attacks were what they were trained to engage.

This data was replicated in a Special Tactics Officer recruitment selection process, where prospective officers who have taken the test before have much lower cortisol levels than first-timers.[2]

Another study, which took blood and urine analysis of a 12-man Special Forces team in Southern Vietnam during the war (2 officers, 10 enlisted men) that when attack is not immanent, officers have lower cortisol, and enlisted men have higher cortisol. But when an attack is immanent, commanding officers’ cortisol levels were raised, special forces operators’ cortisol levels lowered.[3]

For the soldiers, lack of an immanent attack indicated a lack of control, and a lack of opportunity to manifest their competence. But even when an attack meant a threat of death by physical mutilation, Special Forces soldiers' cortisol levels lowered, because attacks were what they were trained to engage.

Therefore, when a threat arises, having competence but not control yields the experience of being overpowered. Having control but not competence yields the experience of being unprepared. In both cases, trauma ensues and resilience is prevented.    


Peter Bourne, who conducted several of these studies, comments: “Most of the members had an inordinate faith in their own capabilities, the result of preexisting personality traits, their very comprehensive training, and their past successful survival through the most hazardous experiences.”[4]

The higher your perceived sense of control and competence in a situation, the higher your resilience.

We will call this combination of perceived control and competence resilience.[5] The higher your perceived sense of control and competence in a situation, the higher your resilience. A situation in which you are highly competent, but have very little control or power, makes resilience much more difficult. Likewise, if you have control in a situation, but don’t know how to use that control to protect yourself, resilience is sabotaged.


Trauma = Severity - Resilience

George Bonanno, a psychologist who specializes in resilience research at Columbia university, distinguishes between resilience and recovery:

“[R]ecovery connotes trajectory in which normal functioning temporarily gives way to threshold or subthreshold psychopathology (e.g., sumptoms of depression or posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD]). … By contrast, resilience reflects the ability to maintain a stable equilibrium.”[6]

So, resilience is what mitigates against you experiencing a stressful event as traumatic. Recovery is the attempt to “return to normal” when a lack of resilience has knocked you out of psychological equilibrium.

“Resilience” prevents trauma. “Recovery” reverses trauma.

How does resilience interface with the events themselves? We will call the objective stressfulness of an event, considered outside psychological factors, the severity of an event. Stubbing your toe is low in severity. Child sexual abuse is very high in severity.

An individual’s resilience may be higher or lower—lower resilience means that more events will be potentially traumatic. In other words, an individual with lower resilience either has less control, or less competence, than he needs to handle the severity of the situation at hand. An individual with higher resilience can handle more stressful events.  

You can’t just use the broken bones right away. You have to rehabilitate them. The same truth applies to a broken mind.

It’s very difficult to quantify resilience. It may even ebb and flow for a single person season to season, day to day, or situation to situation. For example, Cato the younger, a 1st century B. C. Stoic philosopher and military commander, believed grief was an impurity—a weakness that only the unthoughtful suffer.

He was highly competent, and maintained a high degree of control, in severely stressful situations. He would stand in the snow naked for days just to “grow” his resilience—his ability to mentally handle severe stress. But when his brother died, his life was changed. He spent wild amounts of money on the funeral for his brother.[7] He became lost in his sadness.

Your chances of experiencing trauma are 100%. But your level of resilience can be the difference between 5 traumatic events and 500.

One of the most difficult aspects of trauma is that it can happen in any sphere of life without notice, without anticipation, and without any control or competencies prepared. It often does.

Few people make it through life without having their minds ripped apart by grief, or abuse, or overwhelming evil. It’s impossible to have enough control or competence to protect yourself from trauma completely. It’s impossible to be so resilient that you’ll be protected from the deepest pain that you’re scared even to imagine.

Your chances of experiencing trauma are 100%. But your level of resilience can be the difference between 5 traumatic events and 500. But for those 5, resilience must be exchanged for a different process: "Recovery," as Bonanno calls it. The effects of psychological trauma are similar to the effects of physical trauma. You can’t just use the broken thing again right away. You have to rehabilitate it.  And that is another issue entirely.

Books Referenced in This Article


[1] Robert T. Rubin, Robert G. Miller, Ransom J. Arthur, and Brian R. Clark, “Differential Adrenocortical Stress Responses in Naval Aviators During Aircraft Carrier Landing Practice,” Psychological Reports 26 (1970): 71-74.

[2] John S. Cuddy, Andrew R. Reinert, Walter S. Hailes ,Dustin R. Slivka, and Brent C. Ruby, “Accelerometry and Salivary Cortisol Response During Air Force Special Tactics Officer Selection,” Extreme Physiology & Medicine 2 (2013): 28.

[3] Peter G. Bourne, Robert M. Rose, and John W. Mason, “17-OHCS Leves in Combat: Special Forces ‘A’ Team Under Threat of Attack,” Archives of General Psychiatry 19, no. 2 (1968): 135-140; Peter G. Bourne, William M. Coli, Willaim E. Datel, “Affect Levels of Ten Special Fores Soldiers Under Threat of Attack,” Psychological Reports 22, no. 2 (1968): 363-366. I originally encountered these studies in Sebastian Jünger’s very helpful book WAR (New York: Hachette, 2011), 32-35. See also his book Tribe ().

[4] Peter G. Bourne, “Urinary 17-OHCS Levels in Two Combat Situations,” The Psychology and Physiology of Stress, ed. Peter G. Bourne (New York: Academic Press, 1969). 110 [95-148].

[5] It seems that competence and control aren’t the  most important things in preventing post-traumatic effects, but the perception of competence and control.

[6] George A. Bonanno, “Loss, Trauma, and Human Resilience: Have We Underestimated the Human Capacity to Thrive After Extremely Aversive Events?” American Psychologist 59, no. 1 (2004): 20-28. See also his book The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss (New York: Basic Books, 2009).

[7] “On this occasion, Cato forgot the philosopher, and testified the most pungent sorrow.” William A. Becket, A Universal Biography, 3 vols. (London: w. Lewis, Finch-Lane, 1836), 707. “The Philosopher” is Cato’s grandfather, Cato the elder, a prominent stoic philosopher who “argues that death is not an evil.” Marcia L. Colish, The Stoic Tradition from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, Volume I: Stoicism in Classical Latin Literature (Leiden: Brill, 1985), 133. Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni comment: “Cato gave himself to grief, this once, with the same fervor that had led him to preach the effeminancy of grief, the need for independence from pain in all things. For the rest of his life, friends and enemies alike would remark that this was the moment when philosophy most abandoned Cato.” Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2012), 56.

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