What is Trauma?

July 2, 2019

Psychological trauma is damage to the mind that stems from a distressing event that was perceived to be life threatening to oneself or others by our nervous system. Trauma can be a one-time event, a prolonged event or a series of events. Emotional (verbal abuse), physical (physical harm) and sexual assault usually result to trauma, but it is not limited to that. Experiences at school or work and big changes like moving to a new country can all be traumatic. Thus, traumatic events can vary from person to person and trauma may look different to everyone.

Developmental trauma occurs early on in life which disrupts normal brain development. With this type of trauma, emotional, physical, cognitive and social development may be impacted.

Cognitive: Trauma impairs judgement and the ability to process thoughts properly.

Emotional: Trauma may result in feeling guilt, shame, fear, anger and pain.

Physical: Trauma can affect your temperature, sleep, immune system, muscles, joints, metabolism

Spiritual: Trauma may impact our view and the way we see reality. Our understanding of the world and life may be altered.

Social: Trauma can affect our personal and professional relationships (i.e family, friends, spouses, colleagues etc.)

In addition, it is not necessary to personally go through a traumatic event to experience trauma. Trauma experienced by earlier generations can be passed down through changes in Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). DNA is comprised of 46 chromosomes- 23 from the mother and 23 from the father- and every human has a unique genetic code which makes up their DNA sequence. While the genetic code rarely alters, modifications to gene expressions can occur through heritable changes. In simpler terms, genes can be switched on and off based on your ancestral environment and/or lifestyle. As a result, it is possible that traumas experienced by your parents, grandparents, or great grandparents may be passed down to you.

There are several symptoms associated with trauma which is why it can be emotionally, psychologically and physically taxing.

Emotional & psychological symptoms:

  • Shock or denial

  • Confusion

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Anger, irritability, mood swings

  • Fear and anxiety

  • Guilt, shame, self-blame

  • Withdrawing from others

  • Feeling sad or hopeless

  • Feeling disconnected or numb

Physical symptoms:

  • Fatigue

  • Insomnia or nightmares

  • Racing heartbeat

  • Muscle tension

  • Being startled easily

  • Edginess and agitation

  • Aches and pains

Individuals who have experienced trauma may develop a mental health condition called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is typically caused by exposure to trauma which could be either physical or emotional in nature and was experienced as life threatening. Stay tuned for our next blog post to learn more about PTSD.


Emotional and Psychological Trauma. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Matousek, M. (2016, June 23). It Didn’t Start With You: The Mystery of Inherited Trauma. Retrieved from

Van der Kolk, B. A. (1987). Psychological Trauma. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.



Dr. M. Arnold Muller is a licensed School and Clinical Psychologist currently based in Toronto, Ontario, with 31 years of practice experience in two countries. Prior to his time in Canada, he spent the first half of his career in South Africa. Dr. Muller has a Ph.D. with specialization in Psychotherapy from the University of Pretoria, and a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology. He also has a second Masters Degree in Practical Theology from the University of Stellenbosch. Dr. Muller has worked in many settings including school boards, addiction centres, correctional institutions, the military, churches, and private practices. Spending time in these organizations has allowed him to gain an astounding amount of experience in psychological assessment, diagnosis, and treatment plan preparation and application. Dr. Muller also has training and exposure to Neurofeedback Training, Somatic Experiencing, crisis intervention, conflict resolution and managing cultural differences. In his spare time, you can find him hiking, travelling, working on his photography, poetry, and spending time with his family and friends.