Defined as an incident or event that overwhelms and sometimes impairs an individual’s ability to think, act, and perform everyday tasks, trauma can cause lasting psychological and emotional distress. And although we all experience trauma at some point in our lives, instances where the overwhelming feelings aren’t resolved can lead to further mental health complications down the line.
Unresolved trauma can become many different conditions, like depression, bipolar disorder, or even schizophrenia, to name a few. Fortunately, there are a number of treatment options and methods that have been found to successfully address trauma, allowing individuals to function without the constant feelings of distress and hopelessness.
Trauma can come in many different forms and in many different patterns. And although many people think that trauma is usually just one major event, science teaches us that trauma can happen in different ways:
- One-time trauma – These traumas will only happen once, but their severity can make it difficult for individuals to cope with their effects. This type of trauma can include injuries, accidents, sudden deaths in the family, a violent attack, or even rape.
- Ongoing trauma – Constant exposure to a high stress situation can be considered a trauma, especially if it causes a person to alter his or her behavior in order to minimize the effects. For instance, living in a neighborhood with rampant crimes, bullying at school, or sexual abuse in children.
- Overlooked trauma – Although they might not be as obvious, these traumas can impose serious psychological and emotional problems. Childhood neglect, narcissistic abuse, humiliating and disappointing experiences, and breaking up with a partner can all be forms of trauma.
Similarly, there are what’s called big T’s or big traumas and small T’s or small traumas. Big traumas only need to happen once in order to change a person’s thinking or psyche. These are typically one-time traumas that produce lasting change in a person’s life. Things like natural disasters and deaths are considered big T’s. Small T’s on the other hand might not seem like traumas on the surface. But if they keep happening over and over again, they can produce the same effect as a big T. for example, one child who is constantly and consistently neglected and deprived of affection may grow up with the psychological and emotional scars to prove it. Aside from the recurrence of the trauma, there’s the traumatic event itself. Individuals tend to respond differently to trauma, with some people feeling more affected with certain events than others. For example, a woman with a close relationship to her parents might feel doubly distressed at her mother’s untimely passing. This can be a different experience for someone who hasn’t had the best relationship with her mom. There are others who are fully invested in their career, and might feel particularly overwhelmed with emotion if they lose their job, as opposed to someone who doesn’t mind jumping from opportunity to opportunity. Again, traumatic events are diverse, and the reactions to them can change depending on the individual’s unique psychology.
Some of the most common traumas include:
- Sudden death of family members or friends
- Unexpected serious illness or diagnosis
- Abuse in any form (sexual, verbal, emotional, physical, psychological)
- Losing a job
- Natural calamity
- Being displaced from your place of residence
- Surgical procedures
- Kidnappings, robberies, and other violent crimes
- Wars and terrorism
- Racial discrimination
Every person experience trauma at some point in their life, and it’s normal to experience feelings of fear, sadness, hopelessness, and helplessness, but when these emotions get in the way of daily functioning and social engagement then it might be time to seek medical attention.
Everyone responds to traumatic events differently, but there are certain patterns that can help a professional identify the extent of an individual’s reaction. These most common symptoms won’t always occur altogether, but more or less, an individual experiencing trauma will manifest several of these markers:
- Sleeplessness or sleeping too much
- Dizziness and headaches
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Lack of appetite or eating too much
- Emotional outbursts
- Increased psychomotor activity
- Neglect for self-care
- Neglect for relationships
- Panic attacks
- Aggression or violence
- Being easily startled
- Difficulty concentrating
- Avoiding social interactions
- Being triggered by memories or reminders of the traumatic experience
This is not an all-inclusive list, and there are some individuals who may experience symptoms beyond those indicated here. For the most part, these reactions may be considered normal if the individual doesn’t experience significant impairment to occupational or social functioning. However traumatic reactions may become dangerous when they pose a threat to the patient or those around them. For instance, refusing to eat or sleep for days on end can prove to be a health concern. Violent behaviors where the patient lashes out can cause injury to family and friends. Moreover, individuals undergoing a traumatic experience can be more inclined to try alternatives to escape their present reality. This includes the use of illicit drugs and alcohol which may open the doors to a range of different conditions.
Without treatment, trauma can trigger several conditions, including:
- Substance use disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Panic disorder
- Anxiety disorder
- Dissociative disorders
- Bipolar disorder
Finally, there’s the issue of suicide. With a large percentage of individuals with trauma contemplating suicide or even attempting it, experts recommend that patients seek out treatment as soon as possible in order to prevent these unwanted outcomes.
Unless trauma has progressed to a mental health diagnosis, then it might not be necessary to provide medication. That said, most of the treatment will focus on therapy, counseling, and support groups that aim to provide the patient with valuable skills and knowledge to overcome the overwhelming emotions.
- Counseling – This method focuses on providing an individual with an outlet to express and share their emotions, thoughts, and feelings. Providing the patient with a safe space to vent, the therapist’s aim is to understand the underlying cause for the overwhelming emotions.
Although many might dismiss the traumatic event as the root of the problem, most experts assert that some people develop severe reactions to trauma because of underlying issues. Relationship troubles, toxic family dynamics, work related stress, and other pressures are usually uncovered and addressed during counseling.
- Therapy – Behavioral therapy’s goal is to provide an individual with practical, actionable techniques that they can use to address the overwhelming emotions they experience. For individuals whose trauma has also become a trigger, therapists can help them identify situations that might induce negative emotions and how to avoid them.
For example, a woman who was previously subject to sexual abuse might revisit her trauma when she’s catcalled on the street. Behavioral therapy might provide her with techniques like avoiding areas with shady characters, or always walking with a trusted friend.
- Support Groups – Knowing that there are others who have experienced the same traumatic experience as you might make it easier to see and understand that healing is possible. There are lots of support groups out there that work to help individuals discover the healing at the end of trauma.
Finding a group that works with traumatized individuals with the same or similar past experiences can make it even more effective. For instance, an individual who lost her home to a natural disaster might find it more helpful to join a group of people with similar stories. These support groups can also be highly effective in establishing healthy relationships that the patients can revisit after therapy in order to sustain their healing and recovery for the long haul.
In the face of a traumatic experience, it’s all too common for us to feel vulnerable, helpless, and hopeless. But as millions of people have proven, trauma can be overcome. With therapy and counseling, anyone can move on from even the worst traumas, allowing a healthy, happy, functional life to flourish. And while all of us react differently to traumatic experiences, receiving prompt care and adopting a can-do attitude can help make the healing process much smoother and efficient.