PART 2: Shock- vs. Developmental-Trauma

Welcome back to our little series: “Trauma – what is that?” This is the second part building on “Part 1 – What is trauma actually?”.

Shock-Trauma is not Developmental Trauma

In this article, I want to introduce the distinction between shock and developmental trauma.

This is important because: on the surface, they look almost the same, but they work very differently. Both can show up in the form of similar emotions (anger, fear) and a feeling of insecurity – but in working with them, we will need very different treatment approaches!

Personally, I think a lot of misunderstandings and difficulties in the treatment of trauma arise because this distinction is often overlooked. We then try to work with developmental trauma as if it was shock-trauma or vice versa.

Here is the first comparison between the two, which we will explore in detail.


Developmental trauma

A sudden, overwhelming event: too much, too fast, too sudden.

Permanent childhood experiences in which Core Needs were not met: Too little, too long, or even the wrong thing.

The survival energy of the (nervous) system cannot be processed and remains stuck in the system. Fallout: chronic irritability, emotional instability, avoidance strategies & / addictions

The child is chronically dysregulated and experiences the world as unsafe. It develops survival strategies in this uncertain world. These form the basis for later relationship patterns, beliefs and personality.

Sessions can re-activate the held survival energy, which then shows up in the form of Freeze, strong emotions, movement impulses / trembling …

Sessions can trigger these identifications and survival strategies: shame, overwhelm, disorientation…

–> The effects of both look almost identical from the outside, but what happens within the client is very different. That’s why this distinction is so important!

Shock trauma: too much, too fast, too sudden

A shock trauma arises

  • Based on a threatening event that I experienced as too fast, too sudden, happening at once, which left me beyond my capacity for acting and coping with it.

Based on the function of the human nervous system the natural reaction in such a situation, is the so-called “Freeze” – that is, a biologically based strategy of “giving up or playing dead “, in spite of a high charge in the body and nervous system.

Put simply: I have no ability to cope with the situation, so I play dead. I do not act, despite (or because) of my fear and charge. (It is helpful to understand the physiology of the nervous system s. Here you can find out more about this).

  • And I cannot process, metabolize and integrate the experience afterwards.

That is if after the event I cannot discharge the remaining energy of my nervous system or release the overwhelming emotions of the experience.

In this case, they remain “stuck” and can be activated and experienced again and again in the future. This re-experiencing and re-activating of the charge then leads to the behaviours, emotions, thoughts and experiences that make trauma so debilitating.

Shock-Trauma example: Bicycle Accident

A young woman gets hit by a car while on her bike. She has no way of protecting herself during the sudden impact and is “frozen”.

Due to suspected spinal injuries, she is taken to the hospital after the accident and sedated medically. She is released after the investigations have shown no brain and spinal cord injuries.

Although no obvious damage has occurred, she starts feeling increasingly anxious, irritable and avoids cycling as much as possible. In the months following the accident, insomnia, temper tantrums and isolation tendencies become stronger.

Based on the above criteria we can analyze:

  1. The accident itself was sudden, life-threatening and the young woman had no way to handle the situation.
  2. Due to the sedation was no way for her body to discharge the activation of the nervous system in a natural way (shaking, running etc.).

As a result, this charge remained in her nervous system and permanently triggers the feeling of being in danger. The nervous system cannot tell if the signals come from the present (I’m really in danger right now) or old, stored activation (I was in danger and my system could not relax afterwards).

This permanent activation creates certain behaviours (withdrawal from social contact, restlessness) and emotional states (anger, fear, helplessness).

Developmental Trauma: Too long, too little or the wrong thing

Developmental trauma arises differently. Instead of a shocking and drastic experience, there are persistent and repetitive experiences.

Developmental trauma develops especially in early childhood between 0 – 8 years. They can arise, for example, when

  1. permanent (biological) core needs are not met,
  2. the child does not receive what it needs for the healthy development of trust and autonomy 
  3. and that’s why survival strategies are being developed to survive in this mal-adapted environment.

This is a very complex process that I cannot fully present in this article. That’s why you can download a 14-page document from our training below if you want to delve deeper.

A few comments on the points mentioned above:

1. Basic needs are permanently not met

Children have basic needs. An example is body contact: newborns need body contact. This goes so far that they die if they do not receive enough body contact. In less extreme cases, a lack of touch may mean that certain steps of development such as body awareness, self-regulation and ventrovagal growth are not taking place.

This is not about a need not being met once or twice. A deficiency arises when basic needs are permanently not met.

2. The non-fulfilment of needs creates dysregulation and pain

If the (basic) needs of newborns and children are not met, it will result in pain and dysregulation. They experience this as threatening, potentially life-threatening.

The healthy first response to this is protest and frustration, for example, by screaming, crying so that the need is heard and fulfilled.
When their needs are still not met for “long enough” the normal (biological) reaction is to give up: Resignation and Freeze.

If a child’s needs are not met repeatedly and long-term, it will resort to giving up and “freezing” as an increasingly normal response.

3. When basic needs are not met, children cannot develop healthily / normal

The fulfilment of one’s own basic needs in a secure relationship is a requirement for the healthy development of a child. Without physical contact, children can barely experience their own body. Without autonomy and simultaneous affection of caregivers, it is difficult to learn about their own boundaries and abilities safely.

If these needs are not met, these growth processes will not happen optimally and in extreme cases may be stunted completely or even regress.

4. At the same time, children do everything to protect the primary attachment relationship

As a biological organism, humans are almost completely helpless and dependent on their environment after birth, which is why children do everything to preserve their relationship with their caregivers.

 This can be called a biological imperative: “I have to protect the relationship with my caregivers (mostly parents) because without them I am lost and will die.”

So if basic needs are not met in the attachment relationship AND caregivers do not respond positively to the efforts to get them met (protest, cry, create contact) … then the best strategy is to find ways to live and grow without having these needs met.

This creates a vicious cycle: By securing the attachment relationship, the child develops behaviours, behavioural frameworks and stratagems that are not healthy

5. Children adapt to the environment by developing survival strategies

All organisms have an intrinsic drive to survive. That means they make the best possible adjustments in any environment that will allow them to survive. In this case, I learn to survive non-fulfilment of certain needs, dysregulation, and non-developing abilities. 

These learning experiences then form the basis for the emerging behaviours and personality in these children
In other words, children’s self-image and normal behaviours are based on the traumatic effects of unfulfilled needs, including developed survival strategies.

PDF-Handout: What is Developmental Trauma?

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The consequences of developmental trauma

These strategies, and with them the patterns of tension, belief structures etc., stay with the developing child and thus affect their lives, feelings and thoughts.

It can have the same impact as a shock-trauma have (feeling insecure, emotional outbursts …). This happens not only because there is stuck arousal, but because their identity and image of the world are built on these patterns.


We not only feel shame, fear, or insecurity, but we believe we are “are”

  • Nothing worth and bad
  • Weak and small
  • Surrounded by a hostile environment and helpless

Trauma and Food: a Comparison

Shock trauma is a bit like food poisoning: we eat something we cannot digest and it makes us sick until we get it out of the body.

Developmental trauma, on the other hand, results from permanent malnutrition during the formative years: For years we did not get to eat what we actually needed, which is reflected in the development of our system. We also never learned how healthy food actually tastes, smells and how we can get it. 
That’s why we often continue to eat the “normal” food that we grew up with all our lives, without noticing that it makes us unwell – because we never experienced anything else and our eating habits including our taste buds have evolved around it.

The next article

It’s about the different treatment approaches for shock and developmental trauma. Because both need different things in therapy and treatments.

And it is this difference that can shed light on many questions and contradictions in current trauma research.


I’m happy about comments and suggestions.

What is
Developmental Trauma?

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