January 21, 2021

What Is Trauma?

by | Jan 21, 2021 | Trauma & PTSD

Trauma refers to the emotional and physical responses experienced after a real or perceived life-threatening event. Not every event is traumatic- people react in all sorts of ways to danger. 

But trauma can fundamentally change someone’s sense of safety, comfort, and trust. Over the long-term, it can profoundly impact mental and physical health.

Different Types of Trauma 

To fully understand trauma, it’s important to recognize different types.

Acute trauma: Acute trauma refers to the reactions from a single stressful event. For example, if someone survived sexual assault, that might be an example of acute trauma.

Chronic trauma: Chronic trauma refers to prolonged, repeated, and pervasive stress related to traumatic episodes. If, for example, an individual is frequently sexually assaulted by their partner, this might be an example of chronic trauma.

Complex trauma: Complex trauma can happen when someone experiences multiple traumatic events over their lifetime. For example, someone may experience sexual assault and other traumas like homelessness, physical violence, and severe poverty.

While less discussed, secondary trauma refers to indirect exposure to traumatic events. It’s common among caregivers, first responders, and people working in helping professions (doctors, nurses, therapists). 

Different Kinds of Traumatic Episodes

There are many different types of trauma. Many times, when people think about trauma, they only imagine difficult situations like war or brutal violence. But trauma can be more subtle, and it can sometimes be challenging to detect. 

Early Childhood Trauma

Early childhood trauma typically refers to trauma that occurs before elementary school. This trauma can be especially difficult to treat and understand. That’s because children do not necessarily have the language or world experiences to define or even accurately process what happened to them.

The effects of early childhood trauma can be devastating. Children need secure attachments with their caregivers to feel safe. If this is compromised, their development may suffer profoundly.

Research shows that early childhood trauma can result in subsequent problems related to:

  • Delayed brain development and cognitive deficits.
  • Oppositional defiance and problems in school.
  • Memory problems.
  • Intense reactions to ordinary situations (excess crying, serious tantrums, pervasive phobias).
  • Regressive behaviors (acting like a small baby)
  • Physical problems related to headaches, stomach problems, and muscle aches.

It’s not uncommon for people to suppress or minimize early childhood trauma. Sometimes, they may recall it much later in their adult years. Or, they may start piecing it together through flashbacks or nightmares. 

Sexual Abuse 

Sexual abuse refers to any unwanted sexual activity. It can occur through physical force or emotional forms of manipulation, blackmail, or other threats. Sexual abuse can occur at any point in someone’s life. Most of the time, the abuser is someone the victim knows.

There are several types of sexual abuse, including:

  • Sexual harassment: receiving unwanted sexual comments or behavior by another person. 
  • Incest: being the victim of unwanted sexual contact by a family member.
  • Drug-facilitated sexual assault: being drugged with the intention of being sexually assaulted or being taken advantage of when under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • Child molestation: when a child is the victim of sexual abuse. 

Natural Disasters

Earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, tsunamis, and floods all represent natural disasters. These traumas can affect everything from losing your home to severe economic hardship to death. 

Natural disasters may be more common in certain regions (i.e., some locations are more prone to inclement weather), but nobody is entirely immune. Even with protective measures in place, it’s impossible to safeguard yourself from the pitfalls of nature fully.

Community Violence 

Community violence refers to conscious acts of violence committed in public locations. This trauma doesn’t have to happen to you directly for it to affect you. Some common examples of community violence include:

  • Ongoing gang-related activity.
  • Mass shootings.
  • Neighborhood violence (breaking into homes and cars, street fights).
  • High rates of homicides.

Some areas may be more prone to community violence. Unfortunately, socioeconomic demographics play a defining role in determining a neighborhood’s safety. For that reason, poverty can be closely related to this kind of trauma.  

That said, no location is completely immune to violence. As exhibited in the recent uptick in mass shootings over the past decade, these tragic events can happen at any time and anywhere. 

Bullying 

Bullying refers to any deliberate harmful action directed towards a specific person or group. Although people often think of bullying as a childhood phenomenon, it also happens in workplaces, social clubs, and any other group setting.

Bullying comes in many forms, including:

  • Physical abuse: punching, hitting, kicking, pushing.
  • Verbal abuse: name-calling, harassing, taunting, teasing, threatening.
  • Cyberbullying: harassing someone online, sexting, doxxing, pretending to impersonate someone online, excluding people from online groups.

It’s no secret that bullying is a complex problem. Many perpetrators flat-out deny their behaviors (or justify them). Likewise, many victims experience immense guilt and shame over being bullied, which prevents them from reaching out for help. 

Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)

Intimate partner violence refers to domestic violence, which includes any type of harm within a romantic relationship. Unfortunately, rates of IPV are incredibly high. Research shows that as many as 25% of women and about 10% of men have experienced this type of trauma during their lifetime.  

IPV can include many different behaviors, such as:

  • Physical violence: punching, kicking, pulling hair, pushing, shoving.
  • Sexual violence: forced sexual assault, non-physical coercion to engage in sexual activity, blackmail as an attempt to engage in sexual activity, unsolicited sexting. 
  • Emotional abuse: name-calling, making threats, extreme hostility, attempting to sabotage a victim’s reputation.
  • Stalking: repeatedly trying to get the attention or physical space of a partner. People may also stalk other family members or friends in an attempt to get closer to the victim.
  • Control behaviors: controlling how the victim acts, dresses, or works. People may attempt to isolate their victims from other people to prevent others from asking questions.
  • Financial abuse: controlling, stealing, or manipulating household money. Limiting access to accounts and shielding a victim from having financial independence. 

Unfortunately, IPV can be a devastating cycle. It’s usually much too simplistic to suggest that a victim “just leave.” This is especially true if children are involved or if the perpetrator has convinced other people that they are a good person. 

Medical Trauma

Life-threatening injuries or medical illnesses can be traumatic. The risk for trauma increases when your quality of life changes, and you must undergo ongoing invasive procedures to maintain your physical well-being. 

Some common scenarios that may trigger a traumatic response include:

  • Surviving a traumatic car accident.
  • Undergoing serious illness, like cancer, as a child.  
  • Surviving a sudden, unexpected event like a heart attack or stroke.
  • Losing a limb or experiencing paralysis. 
  • Struggling with an autoimmune disorder that doesn’t have a specific treatment.
  • Getting injured while on the job or in a routine activity.
  • Spending many months or years meeting with doctors trying to determine a specific medical diagnosis. 

Financial Trauma 

Financial problems can lead to serious issues related to homelessness, childhood neglect, and hunger. It can also result in untreated medical or psychological issues. Ongoing money issues can trigger relationship stress and low self-esteem.

Events that may trigger financial trauma include:

  • A sudden job loss, especially if it occurs to the family breadwinner.
  • Persistent unemployment.
  • Financial issues related to gambling or other risky ventures.
  • Being a victim of theft or a stolen identity.
  • Inability to pay for basic necessities (food, shelter, clothing).

Refugee Trauma

Refugees can experience tremendous trauma during and after relocating to a new location. Assimilation can be difficult, and many people face numerous challenges when adjusting to this change. 

Subsequently, many refugees have experienced complex traumas related to community violence, natural disasters, or other types of abuse. 

Common Trauma Symptoms

Everyone reacts to trauma differently. However, it’s important to understand the telltale symptoms associated with trauma. Keep in mind that some of these symptoms may emerge immediately. Others may not appear for several months or even years after the event. 

Emotional and Psychological Symptoms

  • Confusion and disorientation to usual events
  • Excess anger and irritability towards self and others
  • Withdrawal behaviors, especially at school or work
  • Excess sadness or depression
  • Shock or a feeling of numbness
  • Increased anxiety 
  • Flashbacks
  • Extreme guilt over the event 
  • Suicidal thoughts 
  • Relationship problems
  • Increased drug or alcohol consumption

Physical Symptoms 

  • Headaches and migraines
  • Unexplained stomach pains
  • Muscle tension and chest tightness
  • Sleep problems
  • Appetite disturbances 
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Increased startle response 

There is no right or wrong way to feel after a trauma. Any of these reactions are perfectly normal. Many times, the severity of these symptoms decreases over time. 

But if your symptoms don’t improve (or if they worsen), you may be struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder, otherwise known as PTSD.

What Is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental health condition that may occur after experiencing trauma. When someone has PTSD, they often feel stuck in the trauma. They may have severe relationship issues and compromised self-esteem. They might self-medicate their anxiety with drugs or alcohol.

Often, it feels like the person just can’t “shake off” those intense feelings or thoughts. In many ways, it can seem like the trauma defines them. 

Not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD. However, trauma is a precursor for all PTSD diagnoses. The risk factors for developing PTSD include:

  • Getting physically hurt as a result of the trauma.
  • Experiencing early childhood trauma.
  • Seeing another person get hurt or die.
  • Having little or no support after the event.
  • Coping with additional stress or problems at home or work.
  • Having a history of other mental health issues like depression or anxiety.

Taking Care of Yourself After Trauma 

If you have experienced trauma, it’s reasonable to feel a sense of hopelessness or despair. You may struggle with accepting what happened to you, and you may spend a lot of time trying to figure out if you did something wrong.

No matter the circumstances, it’s important to practice self-care during this vulnerable time. Here are some protective measures to consider taking.

Express Your Emotions 

Find a creative outlet to express yourself. Whether you choose to journal, draw, sing, or take photos, allow yourself to feel your feelings. If you feel like crying, allow yourself to cry. If you feel like laughing, laugh!

Creative outlets are important, but it should be noted that they aren’t a substitute for expressing your emotions by talking to other people. Reach out for support. Lean on people who love you. Don’t worry about being a burden- people who care about your well-being want to make sure that you’re okay.

Take Care of Your Physical Health

Although it may seem tempting to lie on the couch and eat chocolate, prioritizing your physical well-being may help you heal faster. 

Focus on getting more movement throughout your day. Spend time outdoors. Ensure you get enough rest each night. Maintain a healthy diet and moderate caffeine, sugar, and alcohol. 

Additionally, make sure that you attend all medical appointments. If something feels off, get it checked out. If you take a prescription medication, make sure you take your dose as prescribed.

Try To Maintain a Routine 

Even if it feels impossible, try and adhere to a schedule each day. This can help keep mood swings at bay. The structure also keeps you grounded and motivated.

Try to wake up at the same time each morning. Aim to eat your meals and snacks at regular intervals. Schedule time for self-care. 

Of course, this isn’t a perfect exercise. Life happens, and your routine shouldn’t be so busy or rigid that following it feels impossible. Instead, work to strike the balance between having a reliable schedule and practicing flexibility. 

Consider Therapy

Individual therapy offers a safe and supportive place for you to process and heal from your trauma. Trauma therapy allows you to redefine the events that happened to you. While you won’t forget what occurred, you can learn how to become less reactive to it.

Furthermore, there are many group therapies focused on trauma. For example, you may benefit from attending a group for survivors of sexual assault. These groups have like-minded members to remind you that you aren’t alone. 

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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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