Trauma

Black and white photo of person's hands covering their faceTrauma describes an event that causes a person to feel severely threatened emotionally, psychologically, or physically or an event that causes harm in any of these ways. Not all people experience or react to trauma in the same way, and different types of trauma may provoke significantly different reactions.

For some, effects may be lasting and can cause deep emotional pain, fear, confusion, or posttraumatic stress (PTSD) long after the event has passed. Support, guidance, and assistance from mental health professionals can be fundamental to healing from trauma.

What Defines a Traumatic Experience?

Most people will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives, but what is traumatic for one individual might be relatively insignificant in someone else’s life. There’s no way to predict whether an event will be traumatic or what aftereffects a person might experience. Some types of experiences, however, are more likely to provoke the threat response associated with later negative consequences:

Trauma might also refer to an injury of some kind, such as head trauma or traumatic brain injury. In the case of these and other examples of trauma, physical injury may present many of the same concerns as psychological consequences. Physical harm might require immediate attention, but some physical effects may also appear months or years after the incident. Auto accidents, especially, have a tendency to surface long after the collision in the form of headaches, neck pain, or back spasms.

How Does Trauma Affect an Individual?

A traumatic experience does not necessarily lead to posttraumatic stress in an individual, nor does it always lead to immediate psychological consequences. Even after extreme trauma, a person might experience negative outcomes weeks, months, or years later. There are many ways someone might respond to a traumatic event, including no response at all.  In no way does one’s response (or lack thereof) indicate strength, weakness, coping abilities, co-occurring mental health issues, or anything about one’s history of trauma.

Feelings of shame, embarrassment, or rage may be common following a traumatic experience, especially after an event during which a person was victimized . Physiological effects might include sleeplessness, digestive issues, aversion to sex or intimacy, tremors, and other issues that affect physical functions. Depending on when an individual experiences trauma, the event might alter fundamental brain development (especially in children and infants), leading to lasting mental or physical health concerns.

Other effects related to traumatic experiences might include:

Secondhand trauma may also produce similar effects. Caregivers, including mental health professionals, are exposed to others’ traumatic experiences when individuals share them. While hearing about those experiences might not be parallel to having lived them, they can still present substantial emotional difficulties when the caregiver or psychotherapist empathizes, sympathizes, or provides guidance. People who offer support in these ways should be prepared to care for themselves in whatever way best attends to their emotional needs when secondhand trauma arises.

Traumatic Resilience and Susceptibility

Some people might “bounce back” from trauma with relative ease, even without medical intervention or professional support. This is generally called traumatic resilience and is not necessarily reflective of personal strength, moral character, or other traits often associated with resiliency. Traumatic resilience is a separate psychological concept that does not seem to be related to an individual’s personality, history, or character.

Researchers continue to evaluate trends in people who experience higher levels of lasting psychological damage or more mental health effects after traumatic events. A number of environmental factors may make someone more prone to harmful psychological effects of trauma and can make it more difficult for an individual to heal. These factors can include stress, substance use and addiction, further exposure to trauma, and generational trauma.

Coping and Recovery After Trauma

Most individuals are able to recover from negative consequences of trauma with time and adequate support. For some, coping with trauma’s effects is a matter of time, patience, and self-care. It is possible to begin treating symptoms of trauma with holistic or homeopathic means–for example, some bodywork professionals recommend massage and related modalities.

Psychotherapy is effective in treating both PTSD and isolated psychological issues related to trauma, and various types of therapy have been created specifically to address trauma responses, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) for PTSD. Cognitive behavioral therapy and narrative processing therapies are also recommended for individuals who have experienced trauma.

In addition to therapy, some individuals find psychotropic medication or other prescriptions can provide relief from symptoms such as insomnia, loss of appetite, lethargy, and anxiety.

Having a positive support network is a crucial part of the trauma recovery process. Individuals who have a stable network of people to lean on in times of need and an environment that is not conducive to stress, fear, or guilt are likely to feel relief from trauma symptoms sooner and less likely to re-experience trauma and related symptoms in the future.

References:

  1. Gilbertson, M. W., Shenton, M. E., Ciszewski, A., Kasai, K., Lasko, N. B., Orr, S. P., & Pitman, R. K. (2002). Smaller hippocampal volume predicts pathologic vulnerability to psychological trauma. Nature Neuroscience, 5(11), 1242-1247. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/nn958
  2. Harvey, M. R. (1996). An ecological view of psychological trauma and trauma recovery. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9(1), 3-23. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jts.2490090103/full
  3. Kubany, E. S., & Manke, F. P. (1995). Cognitive therapy for trauma-related guilt: Conceptual bases and treatment outlines. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 2(1), 27-61. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1077722905800045
  4. Pearlman, L. A., & Mac Ian, P. S. (1995). Vicarious traumatization: An empirical study of the effects of trauma work on trauma therapists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 26(6), 558. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/record/1996-15656-001
  5. Singer, M. I., Anglin, T. M., yu Song, L., & Lunghofer, L. (1995). Adolescents’ exposure to violence and associated symptoms of psychological trauma. Journal of the American Medical Association, 273(6), 477-482. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/386889
  6. Soet, J. E., Brack, G. A., & DiIorio, C. (2003). Prevalence and predictors of women’s experience of psychological trauma during childbirth. Birth, 30(1), 36-46. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1523-536X.2003.00215.x/full
  7. The road to resilience. (n.d.). American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx
  8. Tolin, D. F., & Foa, E. B. (2006). Sex differences in trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder: A quantitative review of 25 years of research. Psychological Bulletin, 132(6), 959. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2006-20202-007

Last Updated: 11-28-2017

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