The symptoms we identify and the behaviors we recognize as defenses define which symptoms we see as trauma-related. Early conceptions of trauma-related disorders focused on physical signs of distress while current ones emphasize mental symptoms, but traumatizing experiences evoke psychobiological reactions. An evolutionary perspective presumes that psychophysical reactions to traumatizing events evolved to ensure survival. This theoretical review examines several primitive mechanisms (e.g., sensitization and dissolution) associated with responses to diverse stressors, from danger to life-threat. Some rapidly acquired symptoms form without conscious awareness because severe stresses can dysregulate mental and physical components within systems ensuring survival. Varied defensive options engage specialized and enduring psychophysical reactions; this allows for more adaptive responses to diverse threats. Thus, parasympathetically mediated defense states such as freeze or collapse increase trauma-related symptom variability. Comorbidity and symptom variability confuse those expecting mental rather than psychophysical responses to trauma, and active (sympathetically mediated flight and fight) rather than immobility defenses. Healthcare implications for stress research, clinical practice and diagnostic nosology stem from the broader evolutionary view.