Trauma 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:
- Car accidents
- Sports injuries
- Sexual assault or abuse
- Giving birth
- Domestic violence
- Bullying or harassment
- Death of a loved one
- Witnessing violence
- Experience in war
- Severe weather events or environmental destruction
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.
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.
- 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
- 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
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- 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
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- 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
- The road to resilience. (n.d.). American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx
- 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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EnriqueJuly 6th, 2019 at 7:07 PM
Hi my name is Ricky. I really want to talk to someone in person or an appointment for gaslighting,or narcissistic, girlfriend or the problems I’m having here where I stay thank you.
The GoodTherapy TeamJuly 7th, 2019 at 10:03 AM
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VictoriaMarch 2nd, 2020 at 10:21 PM
Two months ago, I was bullied by my officemates in my previous work because of how I sometimes fail in doing my job, which is why I find it hard to adjust with new coworkers in my working environment. With that, I guess I am traumatized by that certain occurrence in my life. I agree with what you said about even after extreme trauma, one might experience negative outcomes weeks, months, or years later because I still experience it until now. I am thinking of getting trauma therapy so I can handle my fear and anxiety well.
AlishaJuly 31st, 2022 at 12:31 PM
hi I have found out that I have an emotional overwhelming problem that I will like yo solve so I can be with family and friends and learn how to socialize with them and I would usually get out the way and go to my room away from my family and friends.
Sara GTAugust 1st, 2022 at 11:39 AM
Dear Alisha, We understand how difficult it can be to feel emotionally overwhelmed. Perhaps you would like to consult with a mental health professional for help with coping skills and other support? If so, you can start finding therapists in your area by entering your city or ZIP code into the search field on this page: https://www.goodtherapy.org/find-therapist.html. Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. You may click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. If you need help finding a therapist, you are welcome to call us. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Mountain Time, and our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext 3. Kind regards, The GoodTherapy Team
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