Psychological trauma, defined as the experience of an event in which a person feels their life is threatened or in danger, may be accompanied by a sense of helplessness, horror, or numbing as the internal alarm system becomes activated.
We react to trauma in a number of ways, and certain factors put us at risk for more severe psychological difficulties. Fortunately, there are qualities we can build on to help us manage our reactions to traumatic events.
There are four main types of reactions we may experience following a trauma: emotional, cognitive, physical, and interpersonal.
- Emotional reactions include shock, fear, grief, anger, guilt, shame, helplessness, numbness, sadness, confusion, denial, abandonment, anxiety, and depression.
- Cognitive reactions might include problems with concentration, indecisiveness, difficulty making decisions, and intrusive or unwanted memories. You may notice thoughts such as, “How could someone do this?” or, “It felt like time stood still.”
- Physical reactions consist of bodily tension, feeling fatigued, insomnia, startling easily, racing heartbeat, nausea, change in appetite, chills, digestive problems, or profuse sweating.
- Interpersonal reactions involve feeling a sense of distrust, experiencing a loss of intimacy, increased conflict with others, isolation from others, or problems at work or school.
Other reactions to trauma are less common and more severe, and may require professional intervention. These may include:
- Emotional reactions that include intrusive or unwanted reexperiencing of the event after it has happened such as nightmares, flashbacks, and terrifying memories
- Extreme emotional numbing that leads to a sense of emptiness
- Potentially harmful attempts to avoid intrusive experiences through alcohol or substance use, lying, self-injury, or suicide attempts
- Physical reactions that involve hyperarousal, panic, rage, extreme irritability, agitation, restlessness, or violence
- Ongoing anxiety, uncontrollable worry, helplessness, or obsessive or compulsive behavior
- Dissociation (or a sense of being separate from one’s body), having fragmented thoughts, lack of awareness of surroundings, or involuntarily spacing out
Not everyone will develop a mental health condition or posttraumatic stress (PTSD) following a traumatic event. There are certain risk factors that increase the chances of experiencing more severe reactions to trauma, including severe exposure to a disaster, low socioeconomic status, having a preexisting mental health condition, being part of an ethnic minority, lacking social support, and lacking social resources.
Although there are factors that increase the risk of severe trauma reactions, there are also at least seven personality characteristics, described below, that can help a person successfully cope with or manage trauma.
Locus of Control
Locus of control is the extent to which we believe or expect we can control the outcomes of events that affect us. Our locus of control may be internal or external. If we have an external locus of control, we believe our behavior is guided by fate, luck, or other external forces. If we have an internal locus of control, we believe our behavior is guided by our own decisions and efforts, and that outcomes are related to our actions.
Crises challenge our beliefs and expectations about the level of control we have in the situation. Attempting to assert some degree of control following a crisis can aid in more effective coping and can help create a greater sense of meaning and consistency. Some researchers have observed that an external locus of control is related to learned helplessness, a condition in which a person perceives no sense of control, expects that there can be no escape, and believes any attempt to escape will result in failure.
While an internal locus of control can have positive effects in moderation, those who attempt to unrealistically control events may need assistance adjusting their expectations about outcomes. For instance, someone with an unrealistic belief that they could have prevented a crisis on their own by doing A, B, or C may need help focusing on what they can realistically control.
Self-efficacy is our belief about how capable we are to handle situations. If we have high self-efficacy, we exert effort to overcome challenges. If our self-efficacy is low, we avoid actions we think will exceed what we’re capable of. Self-efficacy builds on itself as we add to our successes. It is thought that people who expect to successfully cope with their emotions and moods are more likely to be proactive in their healing and to seek out something positive in threatening situations.
Optimism is holding hope and expecting that good things will happen. Optimism is focused on a desired outcome and not on who is in control or how capable one is in reaching the outcome. Optimists emphasize the positive during difficult situations and have been found by some researchers to be less anxious, hostile, depressed, and self-conscious than those with pessimistic attitudes.
Hardiness as a personality characteristic describes someone who is curious, actively involved, believes they can influence outcomes, expects that life will present changes, and tends to believe that challenges are opportunities for development. People with hardiness have a willingness to learn something of value, and merge those lessons into their lives. Hardiness is also associated with active coping and decreased emotional distress.
People with resilience are those who are at risk for failure early on in life but who nonetheless become successful. Resilient people can take responsibility for their own part in a situation and let go of responsibility for the things they cannot change. Some qualities of resilient individuals include active problem solving, perceiving difficult experiences constructively, gaining positive attention from others, and an ability to continue finding meaning in their experience.
Sense of Coherence
People with a strong sense of coherence understand that stress is an inevitable part of life and recognize that dealing with it successfully can be beneficial. Having a sense of coherence means we seek to comprehend, manage, and find meaning in situations. When we attempt to comprehend the crisis situation, we try to make sense of what happened and explain how it occurred. To manage the situation, it can be helpful to utilize available resources. Meaningfulness indicates the situation is worthy of our time and investment. Having high meaningfulness motivates us to search for ways to comprehend the situation and seek out resources to aid in managing the incident.
The ability to creatively cope is related to one’s ability to let go of the usual ways of solving problems. People who can produce creative solutions are better able to cope with traumatic events in which there are limited opportunities to exert control. Creativity involves flexibility in dealing with one’s environment.
How we react to a traumatic event can be greatly influenced by a number of factors. There are several common ways we react to trauma, and some reactions are more severe than others. Numerous personality traits were identified here that can be learned or cultivated to deal more successfully with trauma and obtain what is increasingly being recognized as posttraumatic growth.
- Tedeschi, R.G., & Calhoun, L. G. (1995). Trauma & Transformation: Growing in the Aftermath of Suffering. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, Inc.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD. (2010). Mental Health Reactions After Disaster. Retrieved from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/pages/handouts-pdf/Reactions.pdf
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