What is trauma?
Trauma is the experience of serious psychological distress following any awful or perilous life event.
Sufferers may display extreme behaviors like extraordinary nervousness, anger, bitterness, survivor’s guilt, or PTSD.
They may experience issues with sleep and can even have psychosomatic symptoms in which the victim feels physical, bodily pain.
Additionally, they can have disruptions in their personal and professional relationships and feel a reduced sense of self-esteem because of the staggering amount of stress they feel.
It is common for trauma survivors to feel overwhelmed, however there are many resources and medical therapies available to help learn coping methods to process the inciting event and reduce its psychological impact.
Past research on trauma shows there are a few solid methods for adapting and coping in a healthy way.
Examples include abstaining from alcohol and drugs, receiving lots of support from family and friends, exercising, sleeping, and overall focusing on a healthy lifestyle and self-care.
Types of Trauma
Trauma is characterized by the experience of the survivor.
However, scientists and clinicians have tried to categorize trauma into two different levels.
Extensively depicted, they can be described as big ‘T’ traumas or little ‘t’ traumas.
Big “T” traumas are more likely to be associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and are unprecedented encounters that evoke extreme pain or powerlessness.
Examples of big “T” traumas could be serious physcial or sexual violence, a natural disaster, or any other life-threatening event.
A person can experience trauma even under the threat of extreme injury, even though the victim is not physically harmed.
Big “T” trauma can also include chronic stressors such as war or growing up in an abusive childhood home.
Experiencing one large “T” trauma is often enough to interfere with emotional well-being and daily functioning.
These types of traumas are significantly more damaging and need long term therapy and support to treat. However, there are still basic coping mechanisms survivors can use during everyday life.
For example, individuals can avoid triggers mentioned previously, such as drugs and alcohol. They can focus on getting enough sleep and leading a healthy lifestyle.
It is necessary that big “T” trauma survivors seek long term professional help and support.
Little ‘t’ traumas are more personal and unique to the individual. They are highly distressing to the individual, but do not meet the criteria of a big “T” trauma.
Little “t” traumas are usually not associated with PTSD and do not involve life-threatening events. Little “t” traumas involve events that disrupt a person’s daily functioning.
Examples include bullying, death of a pet, the end of a relationship or monetary difficulties.
These events are still identified as traumatic, however victims will have an easier time recovering from them compared to a large ‘T’ trauma.
Medical trauma is also a type of trauma one experiences when going through pain or surgery.
What is emotional and psychological trauma?
Emotional and psychological trauma is the consequence of an extreme event in which the build-up of stress overwhelms the person’s ability to cope.
Psychological trauma can leave the victim battling with upsetting feelings, flashbacks, and nervousness that won’t go away.
It can make the person feel numb, distanced from their friends and loved ones, and give the sense of being alone and incapable of confiding in others.
Traumatic encounters frequently include a risk to life or wellbeing, yet any circumstance that leaves a person feeling overpowered and separated can cause trauma, regardless of whether it includes physical harm.
Trauma is not defined by objective parameters but by subjective feelings unique to the individual.
The more startled and vulnerable a person feels, the more likely that person will be traumatized.
Emotional and psychological trauma can be brought about by:
One time occasions, for example, a car accident or natural disaster.
Ongoing stressful situations, for example, living in a violent home, or being diagnosed with an ongoing, chronic disease.
There are many normal life experiences that can cause trauma, for instance, the unexpected passing of a loved one, the separation of an important relationship, or monetary problems like bankruptcy.
Even those who are indirectly exposed to a specific traumatic event can be affected by trauma.
It is common for paramedics, cops, and firefighters to experience psychological stress because the nature of their work is to respond and help those in stressful or dangerous situations.
Coping with trauma on the scale of a natural or manmade disaster presents its own unique challenges.
While the majority of the population will most likely never be involved in an extreme tragedy like a plane crash, or mass terminating for instance, due to the nature of social media, the public is often bombarded with pictures and social media posts of those who are affected.
Viewing these images repeatedly can cause overwhelming stress and a person can experience second-hand trauma.
There are many types and reasons why someone can experience trauma, and whether it happened years ago or yesterday, everyone can be helped.
With the proper supportive treatment and care, everyone has the ability to heal and move forward with their lives.
Symptoms of emotional and psychological trauma
Emotional & psychological symptoms:
· Shock, denial, or disbelief
· Confusion, difficulty concentrating
· Anger, irritability, mood swings
· Anxiety and fear
· Guilt, shame, self-blame
· Withdrawing from others
· Feeling sad or hopeless
· Feeling disconnected or numb
· Insomnia or nightmares
· Being startled easily
· Difficulty concentrating
· Racing heartbeat
· Edginess and agitation
· Aches and pains
· Muscle tension
Effects of Childhood Trauma on Adults
Encountering any type of abuse as a child, whether it’s physical, sexual, or psychological can have significant and serious lifelong effects.
When childhood trauma is not resolved or treated, the sense of fear and unstableness will carry into all aspects of adult life.
Survivors of childhood abuse can frequently encounter sentiments of tension, stress, disgrace, blame, weakness, misery, pain, trouble and outrage.
Enduring maltreatment or trauma as a child has been connected with higher likeliness of anxiety, depression, PTSD, suicide, and substance abuse.
Adolescents who experience trauma and experience constant stress will have effects on their physical health.
Chronic stress during childhood can affect the development of the immune and nervous system.
Children with chronic stress can develop recurrent physical complaints such as constant headaches or stomaches.
Adults with a history of trauma have been shown to have more health and chronic problems.
In addition, they are at increased risk for risky behaviors such as addiction which can further compound on existing health problems.
How Trauma Affects the Brain
A traumatic experience can cause problems in the short term and chronically throughout life.
Trauma mainly affects four parts of the brain: the cerebrum, hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex.
All these parts of the brain are involved in memory. Trauma will cause the brain to release both cortisol and adrenaline in excess.
The effects of these hormones can cause long term changes and damage to all four areas on the brain.
The hippocampus is responsible for forming and storing memories. When the hippocampus is exposed to excess cortisol it will affect its function.
This could mean difficulty with learning and memory.
It has been shown that children who were exposed to chronic, childhood abuse have smaller hippocampuses.
However, the brain is dynamic and new research is showing that new connections are still being made in the hippocampus long after a traumatic experience.
In our brain, the amygdala is responsible for emotion. It coordinates responses to stimuli we have in the environment.
It is responsible for things like fear, anger, and libido. During a traumatic experience, the body releases excess adrenaline which sends our body in a fight or flight mode.
Adrenaline will send the amygdala into overdrive. The amygdala helps form emotional memories.
This is why a person who experiences an emotionally traumatic event, can feel as if they are reliving the trauma over and over again.
The prefrontal cortex is located in the front of our brain and is involved in complex behaviors.
It plays a large part in personality and higher planning. It helps us with memory, decision making, planning, and reasoning.
During a traumatic event or reliving a traumatic event our primal instincts take over and the prefrontal cortex is “turned off”.
The prefrontal cortex helps us in all aspects of life.
This is why trauma survivors can experience turbulence in their lives after the event because the planning centers of their brain are not working properly.
How to Deal with Trauma
Safety first! If you are experiencing an ongoing traumatic situation, ask for help and make sure you are safe.
Below are some ways to deal with trauma:
· Talk with someone you trust about what happened.
· Talking with loved ones is very important. Support and understanding at a difficult time can be very helpful. Know that you don’t have to face this alone
· Know that how you are feeling is very normal for someone who has been through a traumatic event.
· Give yourself time. Know that the way you are feeling will not last, and by dealing with the fears and thoughts, you will be able to get on with life. Be kind to yourself.
· Accept that it might take a bit of time to adjust.
· Spend time doing nice things – relaxing, going for walks, visiting beautiful places, seeing friends. Plan to do nice things each day.
· It will be important to confront situations associated with the traumatic event, but do it gradually. You may decide to go back to work, but go just for a few hours at first and then build it up slowly.
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- Try your best to lead a healthy lifestyle. Don’t use drugs and alcohol to cope. They will only make it worse. Find healthy ways to relax
Frequently asked questions about trauma:
Is it common to have a traumatic experience?
Yes. Almost everyone in their lifetime will experience some type of traumatic event.
Such as a car accident, break up, workplace disaster, natural disaster, etc.
How long do symptoms last?
Symptoms vary to person to person and each situation is unique.
Even two people who experience the same traumatic event can have very different reactions and symptoms.
Symptoms can last a few days to a lifetime.
If you experience symptoms for 6 months or more it is highly recommended to seek out treatment from a medical professional.
Want to learn more about trauma? Check out these resources.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
This book written by a renowned trauma expert has spent 30 years dealing with victims.
In this book he discusses how trauma affects our bodies and various different therapies to treat it.
Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror
In this book the author discusses how the clinical and political view of trauma has changed over the decades.
In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness
This book written by a physician describes how trauma is neither a disease or disorder, but an injury, and provides a unique perspective on his view of trauma.
- Psychology today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/trauma
- Help Guide: Emotional and psychological trauma https://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/coping-with-emotional-and-psychological-trauma.htm
- American Psychological Association https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/