What is Trauma?
Having or witnessing a traumatic experience can have a profound effect on our psychological and emotional wellbeing. If you have ever felt that your life or safety has been put at risk, it can shatter your sense of safety and make you feel helpless.
There are many different causes of trauma, and it is important to remember that it’s not the circumstance or event in itself that signals trauma, but what your emotional experience was of the event – for example, some people would find falling from a height traumatic, whereas others choose to jump out of planes for fun. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatised.
For some, the symptoms of trauma take weeks, months, or even years to surface. Regardless of its source, an emotional trauma contains three common elements:
- It was unexpected
- The person was unprepared
- There was nothing the person could do to prevent it from happening.
The result of emotional or psychological trauma can lead you to feel totally overwhelmed and unable to cope. Reactions like this are normal though and should be expected after trauma. They are a normal reaction to an abnormal event.
There are different severities of psychological trauma, some symptoms are mild and may go away with time, while others can be more severe (such as PTSD) and will require professional treatment. When it comes to trauma, the sooner you seek help the better.
Trauma is subjective and can have a multitude of causes, however, some common events that could lead to psychological trauma include:
- Abuse (physical, emotional, sexual, or verbal. This could be a one-off attack or a recurring form of abuse that takes place over long periods of time).
- Accidents (such as car accidents, a bad fall, or accidentally harming someone else)
- Brain tumour or brain injury
- Catastrophic events (such as natural disasters, war, bombings, and terrorist attacks)
- Physical injury
- Bereavement or terminal illness (whether it is yourself or someone else who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, traumatic symptoms are often experienced).
- Violence (whether you have been a victim, been threatened, or witnessed violence)
The symptoms of trauma vary from person to person and depend on the severity of the event. These symptoms can last anywhere from a few days to decades if treatment isn’t sought. Some people fins that they do not experience any symptoms immediately after the even, but that the begin to occur some time later.
Common symptoms of trauma include:
- Flashbacks – When you re-experience the traumatic event mentally or physically.
- Insomnia – After a traumatic experience it is common to have difficulties sleeping due to nightmares or due to mentally going over details of the event.
- Anxiety – Feeling constantly anxious after a trauma is very common. Sometimes these feelings turn into anxiety disorders such as PTSD or panic attacks.
- Stress – Even if you handled stress very well before your experience, many people find stress harder to manage after a traumatic event.
- Anger – Feeling angry after a trauma is very common. You might be angry at the person who traumatised you, at the event itself or even at the world. This can lead to outbursts and other anger management issues.
- Depression – Many people fall into a depression after experiencing something very distressing. You can be left wondering why the event happened to you – leading to dark moods and in severe cases, suicidal thoughts.
- Loss of self-esteem – It can be easy to lack self-belief and self-confidence after you have experienced something traumatic. You can be left questioning your identity and what you have to offer the world.
- Self-medication – For some, the only way they feel they can deal with what happened is by self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. This leads to very self-destructive behaviour and can isolate you from friends and family.
- Emotional detachment – For some, the emotions brought up are so severe that they cannot deal with them at all. This can lead to emotional numbness, also known as dissociation. You may refuse to deal with any psychological issues you have and could appear cold and distant to others.
There are many different treatment options for those going through psychological trauma – the key is finding a treatment that works best for you. Treatments generally involve acknowledging and processing trauma-related memories while releasing any pent up fight or flight energy. Learning how to regulate strong emotions and building an ability to trust again is also essential.
The type of treatment you receive will depend on several factors, including the kind of trauma you experienced, your personality and your counsellor. Therapists specialised in working with trauma have tools and techniques to help you work through the distressing experiences without re-traumatising you, thereby freeing you to live your life without being stuck in an unhelpful trauma loop.
When the trauma leads to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), damage may involve physical changes inside the brain and to brain chemistry, which changes the person’s response to future stress. This can make even the smallest of “dangers” seem insurmountably challenging and stressful, and the amount of adrenaline produced can far outweigh what’s needed for the circumstances.
It can often take a crisis in the present day to bring someone with trauma to therapy, as unconsciously they may be repeating the traumatic dynamic in their lives in an attempt to overcome it. Therapists specialised in working with trauma have tools and techniques to help you work through the distressing experiences without re-traumatising you, thereby freeing you to live your life without being stuck in an unhelpful trauma loop.