Trauma, which comes in many forms, can be a debilitating experience that affects how someone sees the past, how they live in the present, and beliefs one has about the ability to be safe, happy, and successful in the future. Trauma can result from a single incident, such as a serious accident, assault, or significant loss, or it may occur over a period of time, such as through prolonged exposure to abusive, neglectful, and even emotionally unhealthy environments.
Ultimately trauma is about experiencing an event, series of events, or a relationship that overwhelms one’s capacity to feel safe, whether physically or emotionally. It can leave a person feeling helpless and out of control. It is also often characterized by intense shame, feelings of isolation, and silencing. Additionally, other mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, relationship struggles, and addictions, can often complicate symptoms of trauma.
Symptoms of emotional and psychological trauma
- Shock, denial, or disbelief
- Anger irritability, mood swings
- Guilt, shame, self-blame
- Feeling sad or hopeless
- Confusion, difficulty concentrating
- Anxiety and fear
- Withdrawing from others
- Feeling disconnected or numb
Physical Symptoms of Trauma
Insomnia, nightmares, being startled easily, racing heartbeat, aches and pains, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, edginess and agitation, muscle tension
Trauma often leaves people with lingering questions, plaguing feelings, and doubts. Do you wonder if you’re to blame for something in your past? Do you feel shame related to something that happened to you that you cannot safely discuss with others in your life? Do you wonder why you can’t forget about something that happened so long ago?
How does trauma impact our bodies?
Trauma victims are alienated from their bodies by a mountain of events that begins deep in the brain with a structure known as the amygdala. When faced with a threat, the amygdala triggers a fight-or-flight response, which includes the release of a flood of hormones.
This response usually persists until the threat is vanquished. But if the threat is not vanquished, if we cannot fight-or-flight, the amydala keeps sound the alarm.
We keep producing stress hormones, which in turn wreak havoc on the rest of the body. It’s similar to what happens in chronic stress, except that in traumatic stress, the memories of the traumatic event invade clients subconscious thoughts, sending them back into fight-or-flight mode at the slightest provocation.
In the short term, patients avoid the pain it causes by “dissociating.” That is, they take leave of their bodies, so much so that they often cannot describe their own physical sensations. In the long term, they become experts in self-numbing. They use food, exercise, work – even alcohol and other drugs – to strifle physical discomfort. The longer they do this, the more difficult it becomes to remain present in any given moment.
Causes of Emotional or Psychological Trauma
An event will most likely lead to emotional and psychological trauma if:
- It happened unexpectedly
- You were unprepared for it
- You felt powerless to prevent it
- It happened repeatedly
- Someone was intentionally cruel
- It happened in childhood
Commonly overlooked causes of emotional and psychological trauma
- Falls or sports injuries
- Surgery (especially in the first 3 years of life)
- The sudden death of someone else
- A car accident
- The breakup of a significant relationship
- A humiliating or deeply disappointing experience
- The discovery of a life-threatening illness or disabling condition
How do you know if you need to seek help for trauma? Fear, after all, is a natural and normal reaction to intense life stressors. It helps to active our body’s fight-or-flight alert system, which helps us to protect ourselves in times of danger. Trauma can take over this alert system, however, making it difficult for a person to tell the difference between a real or perceived threat. Individuals struggling with persistent mental, emotional, and physical symptoms weeks to months after a trauma, benefit from seeking assistance from a Counselor.
Trauma doesn’t have to be a life long experience. Healing, safety, and hope can come from effective treatment. A number of treatment approaches are available for your consideration, approaches that treat the whole person, not just your trauma.