What is Trauma?

What really is trauma? The word “trauma” may feel like it’s used a lot in mainstream conversation and in many different ways. In a physical context, it refers to an injury inflicted on a person by an external force. Psychologically, trauma means an emotional response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event. This could be the sudden loss of a loved one, a car accident, rape, or natural disaster. To help one may have to seek out a treatment plan like online therapy.

A person subjected to trauma may respond in several ways. They may be in a state of shock, extreme grief, or denial. Apart from the immediate response, trauma may also give rise to several longer-term symptoms in the form of emotional lability, flashbacks, impulsiveness, and strained relationships. Besides the psychological symptoms, trauma can lead to physical symptoms, such as headaches, lethargy, and nausea. Some may be affected more than others, feeling entrapped in the emotional impact of the trauma enough that they find it difficult to move on with their lives. Such long-term manifestation of trauma can lead to a psychological condition called PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder. A qualified psychologist can help people, who faced a traumatic experience, to recover from the experience and lead a productive life.

Trauma is typically divided into three main types: acute, chronic, and complex.

What is acute trauma?

Acute trauma usually results from a single distressing event that is extreme enough to temporarily threaten the person’s emotional or physical security. The event creates a lasting impression on the person’s mind, and if not addressed through medical help, it can affect the way the person thinks and behaves. Acute trauma generally presents in the form of:

  • Excessive anxiety or panic

  • Irritation

  • Confusion

  • Inability to have a restful sleep

  • A Feeling of disconnection from the surroundings

  • Unreasonable lack of trust

  • Inability to focus on work or studies

  • Lack of self-care or grooming

  • Aggressive behavior

What is chronic trauma?

Chronic trauma occurs when a person is exposed to multiple, long-term, and/or prolonged distressing, traumatic events, over an extended period. Chronic trauma may result from a long-term serious illness, sexual abuse, domestic violence, bullying, and exposure to extreme situations, such as a war. Several events of acute trauma, as well as untreated acute trauma, may progress into chronic trauma. The symptoms of chronic trauma often appear after a long time, even years after the event. The symptoms are deeply distressing, and may manifest as:

  • Labile

  • Unpredictable emotional outbursts

  • Anxiety, extreme anger

  • Flashbacks

  • Fatigue

  • Body aches

  • Headaches

  • Nausea

These individuals may have trust issues, and hence, they do not have stable relationships or jobs. 

What is complex trauma?

Complex trauma can develop with exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events or experiences that are generally within the context of an interpersonal relationship. It can cause feelings of being trapped and often has a severe impact on the person’s mind. It may be seen in individuals who have been victims of:

  • childhood abuse or childhood trauma 

  • neglect

  • domestic violence 

  • family disputes

  • Other repetitive situations, such as civil unrest. It affects the person’s overall health, relationships, and performance at work or school.

What causes trauma?

Emotional and psychological trauma are both the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter a person’s sense of security. Psychological trauma can leave a person struggling with upsetting emotions, memories, and anxiety that won’t go away. It can also leave them feeling numb, disconnected, and unable to trust other people.

Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but can really be any situation that leaves the person feeling overwhelmed and isolated, even if there wasn’t any violence or physical harm. The objective circumstances don’t always determine whether an event is traumatic, but rather the subjective emotional experience has as a result of the event. Both emotional and psychological trauma can be caused by:

  • One-time events, such as an accident, injury, or a violent attack, especially if it was unexpected or happened in childhood.

  • Ongoing, relentless stress, such as living in an unsafe neighborhood, battling a life-threatening illness or experiencing traumatic events that occur repeatedly, such as bullying, domestic violence, or childhood neglect.

  • Commonly overlooked causes include major surgery (especially in the first 3 years of life), the sudden death of someone close, the breakup of a significant relationship, or a humiliating or deeply disappointing experience, especially if someone was deliberately cruel.

Coping with the trauma of a natural or manmade disaster can be a bit different—even if the person wasn’t directly involved in the event. In fact, while it’s highly unlikely any of us will ever be the direct victims of a terrorist attack, plane crash, or mass shooting, for example, we’re all regularly bombarded by horrific images on social media and news sources of those people who have been. Viewing these images over and over can overwhelm your nervous system and create traumatic stress. 

What is childhood trauma?

While traumatic events can happen to anyone, previous signs of childhood trauma can make a person more susceptible to additional trauma later in adult life. Childhood trauma can result from anything that disrupts a child’s sense of safety, including:

  • An unstable or unsafe environment

  • Separation from a parent

  • Serious illness

  • Intrusive medical procedures

  • Sexual abuse, physical abuse, or verbal abuse

  • Domestic violence

  • Neglect

Experiencing trauma in childhood can result in a severe and long-lasting effect. When childhood trauma is not resolved, a sense of fear and helplessness carries over into adulthood, setting the stage for further trauma. However, even if your trauma happened many years ago, there are steps you can take to overcome the pain, learn to trust and connect to others again, and regain your sense of emotional balance.

Symptoms of psychological trauma

No two people react to psychological trauma the same exact way. Most people experience a wide range of physical and emotional reactions, and there is no “right” or “wrong” way to think, feel, or respond.

Emotional and psychological symptoms can include:

  • 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

Physical symptoms can include:

  • Insomnia or nightmares

  • Fatigue

  • Being startled easily

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Racing heartbeat

  • Edginess and agitation

  • Aches and pains

  • Muscle tension

How to heal from trauma

Trauma symptoms typically last from a few days to a few months, gradually fading over time. Though, recovery and treatment  never look like a straight line; a person may be troubled from time to time by painful memories or emotions—especially in response to triggers such as an anniversary of the event or something that reminds the person of the trauma.

If psychological trauma symptoms don’t ease up in a reasonable amount of time and one begins to question on how to live with complex PTSD, how to know if you have PTSD, or how to treat ptsd they may be experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While emotional trauma is a normal response to a disturbing event, it becomes PTSD when the nervous system gets “stuck,” and the person remains in psychological shock, unable to make sense of what happened or process emotions. Whether or not a traumatic event involves death, a survivor must cope with the loss, at least temporarily, of a sense of safety. The natural reaction to this loss is grief. Like those who have lost a loved one, the person needs to go through a grieving process or possibly start trauma-focused therapy.. 

Helping a loved one deal with trauma

When a loved one has suffered trauma, your support can play a crucial role in their recovery and treatment by helping them find a therapist and describing the benefits of therapy.

Though it can be trying at times, it’s important to remain patient and understanding throughout the process. Healing from trauma takes time. Be patient with the pace of recovery and remember that everyone’s response to trauma is different. Don’t judge your loved one’s reaction against your own response or anyone else’s. Don’t take the trauma symptoms personally. Your loved one may become angry, irritable, withdrawn, or emotionally distant as a result of the trauma and probably does not have anything to do with you or your relationship.

Offer practical support to help your loved one get back into a normal routine. That may mean helping with collecting groceries or doing housework, for example, or simply being available to talk or listen.Try not to pressure your loved one into talking but be available if they want to talk. Some trauma survivors find it difficult to talk about what happened. Instead, help your loved one to socialize and relax. Encourage them to participate in physical exercise, seek out friends, and pursue hobbies and other activities that bring them pleasure. Take a fitness class together or set a regular lunch date with friends.

If it feels beyond your support and your questioning how to love a trauma survivor, help your loved one find a trusted therapist.

When to seek professional for trauma

Recovering from any type of trauma takes time, and everyone heals at their own pace. But if months have passed and symptoms aren’t letting up, the victim may need to know what is therapy or different types of therapy from a trauma therapy expert .

It’s time to seek help from a trauma therapy expert when a person is:

  • Having trouble functioning at home or work

  • Suffering from severe fear, anxiety, or depression

  • Unable to form close, satisfying relationships

  • Experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks

  • Avoiding more and more anything that reminds you of the trauma

  • Emotionally numb and disconnected from others

  • Using alcohol or drugs to feel better

The person might be reluctant, which is normal. Working through trauma can be scary, painful, and potentially re-traumatizing, so healing work is best undertaken with the help of an experienced trauma specialist. Finding the right therapist may take some time. It’s very important that the therapist chosen has experience treating trauma. But the quality of the relationship with a therapist is equally important. When interviewing potential therapists, it’s good to ask:

  • Does the person feel comfortable discussing their problems with the therapist?

  • Did they feel like the therapist understood what you were talking about?

  • Were their concerns taken seriously, or were they minimized or dismissed?

  • Were they treated with compassion and respect?

  • Do they believe that there was potential to gain a trusting relationship?

Advekit has a online mental health quiz along with wide range of therapists who specialize in trauma, and it’s easy to get matched as soon as today.

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