Understanding Nonviolent Causes of PTSD

Causes of PTSD

Our understanding of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has evolved and broadened since it was first added in 1981 to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the handbook of psychiatric illnesses widely used by clinicians and psychiatrists in the U.S.

Originally, the term trauma and symptoms of PTSD were ascribed only to a life-threatening occurrence such as what a soldier experiences in combat, a first responder in a crisis situation, or a victim of assault or abuse.

It later expanded to other life-threatening occurrences like natural disasters, automobile accidents, and child abuse. Today, researchers are discovering that nonviolent causes, such as emotional trauma or the accumulation of smaller stresses or traumas, can also lead to PTSD or what’s called Complex PTSD.

Researchers are discovering that nonviolent causes, such as emotional trauma or the accumulation of smaller stresses or traumas, can lead to PTSD or what's called Complex PTSD. Click To Tweet

According to leading trauma researcher, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, trauma is prevalent and has untold impacts on human health and relationships. In his published article Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Nature of Trauma, he states that the human response to psychological trauma is one of the most important public health problems in the world.

Indeed, the effects of trauma extend beyond psychological functioning. Some childhood traumas have far-reaching health consequences later in life, increasing the risk of alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, suicide attempts, risky sexual behavior, and a number of diseases and health issues.

Having a better understanding of the nonviolent forms of trauma is important so that sufferers who need help can find it.

What Is Emotional Trauma?

Emotional trauma can result from any type of overwhelming, traumatic experience or series of distressing events that exceed an individual’s ability to process the emotions involved and cope adequately.

According to the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, experiencing a traumatic event can harm a person’s sense of safety, sense of self, and ability to regulate emotions and navigate relationships. Long after the traumatic event occurs, people with trauma can often feel shame, helplessness, powerlessness, and intense fear.

While emotional trauma can result from life-threatening events, it can also stem from situations where no physical harm is involved. That includes incidences of harassment or adverse childhood events such as neglect, verbal abuse, or parental separation.

More nuanced and complex examples of emotional trauma might include relationships with others that have some sort of psychological abuse involved, such as a demeaning boss or controlling romantic partner. Divorce and profoundly humiliating experiences can cause emotional trauma, too.

Trauma From Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs)

Traumas experienced in childhood and their far-reaching PTSD effects have only recently begun to be understood.

In 1995, a landmark study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente sought to identify the extent of ACEs in a group of 17,337 adult participants as well as any potential long-term effects. The participants were surveyed using 8 specific questions that covered neglect, abuse, and household dysfunction—such as witnessing domestic violence. The results were astounding. Nearly 25% of those in the study had been exposed to 3 or more of the 8 ACEs that were being studied at that time.

The fact that the participants were primarily middle-class adults suggests that ACEs can happen in almost any household. Of course, we now understand that chronic poverty, community violence, and racism can also adversely affect a child’s mental and physical health and development.

How Trauma Affects Your Body

Trauma impacts your body in profound and lasting ways, particularly in childhood. The actual traumatic event or series of events triggers the body’s stress response.

When we are faced with a threat (real or perceived), this fight-or-flight system automatically kicks in and releases cortisol and other stress hormones into our brain and body. This causes our heart rate to go up and our muscles are alerted to either potentially run away from whatever could hurt us or to freeze. It is designed to increase our chances of survival.

In normal circumstances, the stress response turns off after the threat passes. However, when there’s trauma, parts of the brain turn off so that we can focus on escape and survival. When this happens, some of the memories about the trauma can get placed in the non-cognitive areas of the brain, such as the sensory system, or in the body. They essentially get hidden away.

With PTSD, the brain fails to process the trauma correctly. It doesn’t file the memory of the event as being in the past. The stress response stays engaged, and the brain stays alert to any potential danger, even when it is safe. Details like sights, sounds, or smells, get attached to the trauma memory, and they can become triggers.

What Are the Signs of PTSD?

There are many signs and symptoms that may indicate PTSD. Sleeplessness, anxiety, irritability, hypervigilance, being easily startled, difficulty concentrating, overwhelming guilt or shame, distressful memories, flashbacks, and nightmares are among the most common. Sufferers of PTSD are more likely to engage in self-destructive behavior such as drinking too much or driving too fast, as well as have suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Dr. Besser van der Kolk’s research article cited above makes note of additional symptoms that treatment-seeking patients experienced as a result of being exposed to a range of different traumatic events over their life span. These include affect dysregulation, aggression against self and others, amnesia and dissociation, somatization, depression, distrust, shame, and self-hatred.

A type of PTSD called Complex PTSD, commonly resulting from prolonged or chronic trauma, may have some of the traditional PTSD symptoms plus a few more. Complex PTSD may include problems with self-esteem, where the sufferers feel responsible for their trauma. Those who suffer childhood trauma from a caregiver (even verbal abuse and neglect) often blame themselves. They also have emotional dysfunction and relationship problems, often staying in unhealthy relationships because the situation is familiar.

How to Recover from Emotional Trauma and PTSD

If you have experienced any kind of trauma as a child or adult or are showing signs of PTSD, reach out to a mental health professional. There are treatments that have been shown to work.

A study published in Biological Psychiatry indicates that cognitive-behavioral therapy may help to reduce symptoms of PTSD, as well as reverses the underlying biology of the disorder within the brain. Additionally, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), a special psychotherapeutic technique, has been shown in studies to be an effective treatment for people who have been emotionally traumatized.

Trauma, PTSD, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. Can you set up a clinical location in Israel, please……

    Comment by Holly Matisis — December 3, 2021 @ 7:39 AM

  2. Hello,
    I just wanted to express my many thanks to all of you for offering such good quality & highly helpful information out there to us all ! 🙏🙏😇 Thx from Geneva, Switzerland.

    Comment by Mélanie KILCHENMANN — June 13, 2022 @ 4:00 AM

  3. Thank you for this really helpful article. As someone with cptsd it has been something I have long hoped for, and would be very keen to hear SPECT insights about.
    The sad thing is, the article by vanderKolk that you cited here is from 2000. This information has been out there, but not utilised or entered into mainstream health practise. So much of the mental health space has been actively resistant to the neurological realities of cptsd, and I have witnessed it and lived it as a kind of medical exile.
    Anyway, thank you, and please consider this a cry out from the wilderness for more championing of the complex trauma survivors, and for “change your brain” insights for us . Being in Australia I am too far from your spect machine.

    Many thanks again and blessings for all your excellent work.

    Comment by Bruce Russell — June 13, 2022 @ 4:21 AM

  4. I found this information on Complex PTSD interesting and informative. As a child I witnessed a lot of dysfunction in my family. My parents constantly fought, and they wound up getting divorced when I was 11. Because my mother really wanted to live her own life, my older sister and I stayed with my dad. I was embarrassed and sad. Being the youngest I didn’t know how to process what was happening, although I didn’t blame myself. Neither one of my parents tried to help me understand the situation, I just went along with all of the changes like moving around a lot, and listening to relatives blame my mother or blame my father. I was confused and afraid all of the time. I didn’t realize till much later in life how this impacted my emotional well being. I started seeing a therapist and thankfully after years of therapy I am comfortable in my own skin. Things from my background still bother me sometimes, but I am able to sort it out, and move forward. Trying to ignore issues doesn’t work. Getting professional help can do a lot to make you able to live the life you want.

    Comment by Denise — June 15, 2022 @ 11:39 AM

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