What is Trauma?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster,” but Medical News Today opens this definition up a bit, sharing that any person may experience some kind of trauma as a response to any event they perceive as harmful, or physically or emotionally threatening. 

Trauma can impact a person immediately after the event, and also in the long term. Additionally, different individuals can have varying reactions to traumatic events—even to the same traumatic event. 

Traumatic experiences usually refer to an instance of a threat to one’s life or safety, but any situation in which we feel isolated, overwhelmed, or threatened can result in trauma even if there was no physical harm. Why is this?

“It’s not the objective circumstances that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event.”

The more frightened, threatened, or helpless we feel in or after a situation, the more likely we are to experience trauma. 

We can experience both emotional and psychological trauma, which occurs as a result of extraordinary, stressful events or circumstances that shatter our sense of security. When we experience psychological trauma, we may have upsetting, painful, or scary emotions, memories, and anxiety that won’t go away. Sometimes we may also feel numb, disconnected, and unable to trust those around us.

Physical and Emotional Trauma Symptoms

If you are experiencing trauma, you may experience feelings that include:

  • Being overwhelmed
  • Helplessness
  • Shock
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Sadness
  • Shame
  • Confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Numbness
  • Guilt
  • Hopelessness
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating

Trauma also leads people to experience emotional outbursts and difficulty coping with their emotions. Those who are affected by trauma may also have difficulty processing their experiences physically and may even experience physical symptoms related to their trauma, including:

  • Headaches
  • Digestive issues
  • Fatigue
  • Racing heart
  • Sweating
  • Jumpiness
  • A constant state of alertness (hyperarousal)
  • Difficulty sleeping

The Different Types of Trauma

Trauma doesn’t look the same from one person to another and can stem from a wide range of causes, presenting itself in a multitude of ways that stem from how the trauma was caused. These include:

Acute trauma: This trauma originates from a one-time, stressful, or dangerous event.

Chronic trauma: Chronic trauma is the result of ongoing, prolonged exposure to high-stress or dangerous situations, and can include instances of child abuse, bullying, domestic violence, and more.

Complex trauma: This kind of trauma is the result of exposure to multiple traumatic events. Complex trauma can occur repeatedly and escalates throughout the duration and can refer to intense, calamitous situations, acute or chronic illness that requires medical intervention, and more 

About Secondary Trauma

Additionally, you may have experienced trauma from a situation that didn’t happen directly to you. This can occur in family members or those in close proximity to someone who went through a traumatic event. This is referred to as secondary trauma or vicarious trauma. You may be at risk for vicarious trauma if:

  • A family member or loved one went through a traumatic experience
  • You are a mental health professional caring for someone who has experienced trauma
  • Someone for whom you are a caregiver has gone through a traumatic event
  • And similar situations
  • The symptoms of vicarious trauma often mirror those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Trauma’s Potential Long-Term Effects

Trauma may have a long-term effect on a person’s wellbeing if they do not seek help or treatment. If someone’s symptoms of trauma persist and do not decrease in severity, it can be an indicator that the trauma has developed into a mental health anxiety disorder called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If trauma and resulting PTSD from a trauma go untreated, it is unlikely to disappear on its own. Instead, it can have an impact in other ways that include:

  • Chronic pain
  • Depression
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Sleep problems
  • Other challenges that affect a person’s ability to work and interact with others

When someone experiences a traumatic event or terrifying ordeal, or if they are gravely harmed, they may develop PTSD. They may have trouble functioning in their work and personal relationships, develop phobias, or self-isolate, and children may struggle in school.

In some instances, those who suffer from PTSD may re-experience their trauma in the form of flashback episodes, or have frightening thoughts, memories, or nightmares, especially if they are exposed to triggering events or items that harken back to the trauma.

Why See a Therapist for Trauma?

Real trauma requires healing, just like a physical wound or scar. It takes time to accept the trauma that has happened to you, and in the same way a doctor can help heal your physical body, a therapist can help you find ways to come to terms with your trauma and your emotions.

But healing from trauma is hard work. It can be tempting to avoid the pain and bottle up your feelings instead, which may only make you feel worse, and could tempt you to self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, or other unhealthy coping mechanisms. 

Working with a therapist gives you support and a routine to fight through the pain and turmoil of your trauma. A trauma therapist can help you learn and practice healthy coping skills while mitigating negative stress symptoms. 

Therapy can also help you learn more about the impact of trauma and its effects on your body. You’ll work to discover your individual triggers and how to overcome them. When you find a therapist experienced in dealing with trauma, you can get the support you need to stand up to your trauma and reclaim your mind, body, and life. 

Therapy for Trauma

People who have experienced trauma benefit from therapy, but that doesn’t mean that every person with a traumatic past should go through the same kind of therapy treatment. 

Types of therapy a person with trauma may benefit from include:

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): One of the most effective approaches for trauma and PTSD, CBT (and stress inoculation therapy) works to help people with trauma change their thought patterns and impact their behaviors and emotions. 

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): During EMDR, individuals go through a quick period of “reliving” their traumatic experiences while a therapist directs their eye movement to better process and integrate traumatic events and memories. 

Somatic therapies: “Somatic therapies” refers to body-based techniques that help the mind and body process trauma by reliving traumatic memories in a safe space, combining psychotherapy with body-based techniques to transform trauma into strength, applying pressure to points in the body to create a sense of relaxation, and other touch therapies like Reiki, healing touch, and therapeutic touch therapy.

Prolonged exposure therapy: This therapy method is designed to help those avoiding anything that reminds the patient of the traumatic event learn to confront and overcome their fears.

Trauma’s Impact Does Not Have to Last a Lifetime

Many people experience trauma at some point during their lives and will feel the effects of these events. Some will even find themselves facing debilitating symptoms that impact their daily life. 

Dealing with trauma is challenging. But the good news? With the right help and the proper care, the effects of trauma don’t have to follow you throughout the rest of your life. Different interventions and counseling conversations can prevent many of the long-term effects associated with trauma.

Managing trauma on your own can feel like you’re drowning. We’ll give you a life raft and teach you how to “swim.” Book a therapy appointment today to take the first step towards healing your body and mind after trauma.