6 Things to Know About Trauma

Trauma

Trauma

When someone is dealing with trauma, it can be as impactful, if not more so, than physical injuries.

For example, if a person is involved in a car accident, the trauma they endure can be something that’s as challenging to recover from as any of their other injuries. People often seek compensation for pain and suffering and emotional damages, including trauma, after accidents that are someone else’s fault.

Despite the far-reaching effects of trauma, it’s something that’s widely misunderstood.

The following are six things valuable for anyone to know about trauma, whether it’s something they’re personally dealing with or they want to know how to better support a loved one.

1. What is Trauma?

The American Psychological Association describes trauma as an emotional response to an event that’s terrible. This can include rape, natural disaster, an accident, an illness, or death. A person can also experience trauma from any event that they personally find harmful or threatening, physically or emotionally.

Someone who’s experiencing trauma will often feel a wide range of emotions right after the event and over the long term.

Feelings someone might experience with trauma include being overwhelmed, shocked, helpless, or having a hard time processing what they went through. Trauma can also lead to physical symptoms.

If someone’s trauma persists, it can mean it’s turned into post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a serious mental health condition.

2. Types of Trauma

Trauma can be acute, which is what comes from one stressful or potentially dangerous, or life-threatening event.

Chronic trauma is from ongoing, repeated exposure to something that’s highly stressful, like child abuse, domestic violence, or bullying. Complex trauma comes from being exposed to multiple events that are traumatic.

There’s also a concept of secondary trauma. This type of trauma means that someone can develop their own traumatic symptoms because they’re in close contact with someone who’s experienced something traumatic.

3. Traumatic Experiences

What constitutes a traumatic experience can vary depending on the person, but some examples include the following:

  • Car accidents
  • Terrorism
  • Harassment or bullying
  • Physical, sexual, or psychological abuse
  • Sexual assault
  • Life-threatening illnesses
  • Attacks
  • Kidnappings
  • Sudden loss of a loved one
  • War
  • Natural disasters

People have very different reactions to events that are traumatic. For example, one person who lives through the same natural disaster as another may have a very different response.

4. Symptoms of Trauma

Trauma symptoms can occur on a spectrum ranging from mild to severe. Some of the factors that influence how someone experiences trauma and their symptoms include the presence of other co-occurring mental health conditions, personal characteristics, their approach to handling their emotions, previous traumatic exposure, and the characteristic of the event or events.

The emotional and psychological symptoms and responses of trauma include:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Denial
  • Shame
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Emotional numbness
  • Irritability
  • Guilt
  • Problems concentrating
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Social withdrawal
  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Problems coping with emotions

Physical responses or symptoms of traumatic exposure include:

  • Digestive issues
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Jumpiness
  • Racing heart
  • Hyperarousal, meaning someone feels like they’re constantly on high alert

Someone with trauma may develop mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse problems.

5. Trauma Can Become PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a diagnosable mental health condition. Someone with PTSD will experience disturbing and intense feelings and thoughts relating to their experiences long after the event ends. Someone with PTSD may relive what they went through with nightmares or flashbacks, they may become detached from other people, and they often avoid situations, people, places, or things that remind them of the event.

Someone with PTSD could have a very strong reaction to a normal, everyday thing, like a loud noise.

The symptoms of PTSD are categorized in one of four ways.

There are intrusion symptoms. These can include intrusive thoughts like unwanted memories, flashbacks, or dreams that are distressing to the person experiencing them.

Avoidance means avoiding things that remind the person of the traumatic event.

The third category of PTSD symptoms changes in cognition and mood. These varied symptoms can include having trouble remembering parts of the traumatic event or negative feelings and thoughts that distort a person’s beliefs about themselves or others. For example, someone with PTSD might blame themselves for what happened, or they might not be able to experience happy positive emotions.

There are also changes in arousal and reactivity. Particular symptoms that could fall into this category include being irritable or having angry outbursts, behaving in a self-destructive way, having problems sleeping, or being easily startled.

For a diagnosis of PTSD, the symptoms have to last for more than a month, and they have to significantly impact someone’s functionality in their daily life.

There are some other related conditions, like acute stress disorder. Acute distress disorder is also something occurring in reaction to trauma, and the symptoms are similar, but people with acute stress disorder have symptoms that occur between three days and a month after the event. Acute stress disorder can turn into PTSD.

Around 13-21% of people who survive car accidents develop acute stress disorder. Between 20% and 50% of people who are survivors of mass shootings, rapes or assaults develop acute stress disorder.

6. Treating Trauma

There are treatments available for trauma symptoms and for PTSD. The treatments are similar to one another.

Some people with trauma symptoms will begin to go away over time. Other people find that relying on their personal support systems helps them, and then there are people who do need professional treatment.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is an especially important part of treating trauma and PTSD. Within the larger category of CBT for trauma and PTSD are more specific types of therapy, such as cognitive processing therapy. In cognitive processing therapy, a person works to change their negative emotions, like shame or guilt and the accompanying beliefs, to confront distressing memories and emotions.

Finally, there are cases where medications like antidepressants or alternative therapies may help someone with PTSD. For example, some people find animal-assisted therapy or acupuncture helps their symptoms of trauma.

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