What is 'trauma'? Trauma involves a single experience, or an enduring or repeating event or events, that completely overwhelm an individual's ability to cope or integrate the ideas and emotions involved with that experience. The sense of being overwhelmed can be delayed by weeks, years or even decades, as the person struggles to cope with the immediate circumstances. Psychological trauma can lead to serious long-term negative consequences.
Trauma can be caused by a wide variety of events, but there are a few common aspects. There is frequently a violation of the person's familiar ideas about the world, putting the person in a state of extreme confusion and insecurity. This is also seen when people depended on for survival violate or betray or disillusion the person in some unforeseen way.
Psychological trauma may accompany physical trauma or exist independently of it. Typical causes and dangers of psychological trauma are sexual abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, domestic violence, bullying, and being the victim of an alcoholic parent. Catastrophic events such as earthquakes, war or other mass violence can also cause psychological trauma.
Different people will react differently to similar events. One person may experience an event as traumatic while another person might not. In other words, not all people who experience a potentially traumatic event will actually become psychologically traumatized.
Symptoms of Trauma:
People who go through these types of extremely traumatic experiences often have certain symptoms. How severe these symptoms are depends on the person, the type of trauma involved, and the emotional support they receive from others. Reactions to and symptoms of trauma can be wide and varied, and differ in severity from person to person.
After a traumatic experience, a person may re-experience the trauma mentally and physically, hence avoiding trauma reminders, also called triggers, as this can be uncomfortable and even painful. They may turn to drugs or alcohol to try to escape the feelings. Re-experiencing symptoms are a sign that the body and mind are actively struggling to cope with the traumatic experience.
Triggers and cues act as reminders of the trauma, and can cause anxiety and other associated emotions. Often the person can be completely unaware of what these triggers are. In many cases, this may lead a person suffering from traumatic disorders to engage in disruptive or self-destructive coping mechanisms, often without being fully aware of the nature or cause of their own actions. Panic attacks are an example of a psychosomatic response to such emotional triggers.
Consequently, intense feelings of anger may frequently surface, sometimes in inappropriate or unexpected situations, as danger may always seem to be present, as much as it is actually present and experienced from past events. Upsetting memories such as images, thoughts, or flashbacks may haunt the person, and nightmares may be frequent. Insomnia may occur as lurking fears and insecurity keep the person vigilant and on the lookout for danger, both day and night.
One of the most effective and research-based treatments for trauma is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). As a certified trauma professional, I use EMDR to help clients safely discharge the psychological, emotional, and physical hyperarousal that accompanies trauma (please read my blog on EMDR). When a traumatic event occurs, the memory of it gets encoded in our brain with the intense emotions experienced at the time of the trauma. Later, when recalling the trauma, individuals feel the same intensity of these negative emotions present-day. EMDR allows the brain to reprocess these experiences in a way that alleviates the intense emotions while re-encoding the now benign memory.
If you or someone you know suffers from a traumatic experience or post-traumatic stress disorder, recovery is possible. Reaching out for professional help is a positive first step. If you would like help, please call me at 619-507-2936.
Debbie Tessmer-Wagner, MA, LMFT