Almost everyone has had some degree of traumatic experience in their lives and yet few people actually understand what trauma is or how it affects them and their loved ones. Trauma is not something that happens only to soldiers suffering from war-related PTSD symptoms. Most people have unprocessed traumatic experiences and memories that are affecting them on some level today no matter how far in the past the experience is, what their current life circumstances are, or how well-adjusted they seem or think they “should be.”
Symptoms of Trauma (emotional, mental, physical, behavioral)
Do you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself of loved ones? These symptoms can come on suddenly after a traumatic experience or you might notice them having been an ongoing presence in your life with no discernible beginning.
Trauma symptoms include (but are not limited to):
Emotional – anger, irritability, overwhelm, guilt, shame, helplessness, hopelessness, anxiety, fears/phobias, depression, confusion, shock, denial or disbelief, feeling betrayed
Psychological – avoidance of things that are reminders of the trauma, flashbacks to the disturbing events, intrusive thoughts, difficulty paying attention, memory problems, nightmares, sleep disturbances, numbing, sense of being disconnected from the world or yourself, thoughts about death/dying or hurting self/others, dissociating from reality, avoidance of intense or particular emotions
Deep beliefs about yourself being bad, being responsible for what happened, being unsafe or beliefs about the world/other people being an unsafe/untrustworthy place
Physical – startling easily (jumping when someone walks in a room, e.g.), racing heart, aches and pains, muscle tension, frequent stomach upset or digestion problems, changes in appetite, vision problems, headaches, increase or decrease in libido, weight gain
Behavioral – “lashing out” at people, isolating from others, behaving violently, clinging behaviors in children and/or acting out behaviors, inability to complete assignments at work or school, defiant attitudes/behaviors, age-inappropriate sexual behaviors, increased or decrease in sexual behaviors, abusing drugs or alcoho
As you can see, there are as many kinds of symptoms as there are people because everyone's mind and body responds differently to traumatic events.
So What Causes a Traumatic Response?
Any time you encounter a situation where you experience an overwhelming amount of negative emotion and/or thoughts and do not have the support or internal resources (coping skills, sense of safety inside, spiritual connection, etc) to deal with it, you may experience a traumatic response.
Most people are familiar with what many therapists consider shock traumas or “big T” traumas. These are the things we think of when we know someone has suffered abuse or a violent crime or has been in a war situation. We think of things like murder, rape, domestic violence, armed robbery, etc.
In situations like these our bodies go into a state of “fight-flight-freeze” which allows us to either fight off an attacker, run away from danger, OR (in nature's last ditch attempt to save our lives or minimize pain) freeze so we won't be noticed or won't experience as much pain as we would otherwise.
If this life-saving energy that is generated to help us escape is unable to be properly discharged after the scary event is over, it will be held in the nervous system and cells creating the myriad disturbances mentioned above. That said, not everyone is traumatized by the same things and not everyone who has a traumatic experience will develop a traumatic response. Moreover, some people may experience a traumatic response to things that others would consider harmless or simply unpleasant experiences because of the way the situation is perceived by them in the context of their unique biology and history.
The good news is that studies show that people who are able to successfully discharge the traumatic energy and make meaning of the experience in a healthy, positive way with supportive others may actually have an enhanced quality of life after a traumatic experience. Life can take on new meaning as one feels empowered for having overcome something difficult with success. There may also be a newfound sense of vitality and connection to one's self and others.
Healing from trauma can be difficult and painful, but the rewards may be a new lease on life.
In upcoming articles, we will discuss other types of traumatic experiences called developmental trauma, complex trauma, secondary trauma, and other types of unrecognized and important “small t” traumas; how the brain, mind, and body experience trauma; protective factors against trauma; how to cope with trauma; how to heal from trauma; helping a loved one with trauma; and more!