What is Trauma?
A core factor in an individual’s well-being is feeling safe and secure. Trauma occurs when experiencing an extremely stressful situation that threatens one’s physical, emotional or psychological well-being and safety. Car accidents, loss of a loved one, abuse or neglect, sexual assault, exposure to violence, and natural disasters are common experiences that can result in trauma.
Because every person is unique in his/her own personality, temperament and life experiences, trauma is an individual experience. Two people experiencing the same stressful event can have different outcomes that range from no trauma to various levels of trauma. Each person’s response to distressful events is impacted by many factors including age/experience, social support system, culture, the source of the trauma, the extent of the trauma, repeated trauma, and the reactions of others.
Experiencing triggers is the hardest part of dealing with unresolved trauma. Triggers are usually unexpected and often times not understood. They can occur in many different forms such as hearing specific sounds or words, facing similar situations as that of the traumatic event, detecting a specific scent, and/or watching the behavior and interactions of others. Because triggers can happen at any time anywhere, they can catch us off guard and interfere with our daily functioning.
Symptoms Of Trauma:
Unresolved trauma can significantly impact our behaviors, daily functioning and our relationships. The effects of trauma can be so intense that it can naturally lead to other mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and phobias. Some individuals may even begin to rely on drugs and alcohol in an attempt to sooth or numb the pain associated with trauma; this can then lead to substance abuse. Other symptoms of trauma include lack of focus, feeling withdrawn or isolating oneself, memory lapses, and changes in one’s eating and/or sleeping patterns. Extreme cases of unresolved trauma can cause nightmares and/or flashbacks. Overall, coping with trauma is physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting because so much energy is required.
Generally speaking, the symptoms of trauma can be separated into four categories:
This is the most common symptom of unresolved trauma. Because the human body and mind are designed for survival, the primal part of our brain will release chemicals into our body when it perceives danger. The purpose of this chemical release is to rapidly inform the body that it needs to take action towards safety. The body reacts with an increased heart rate, accelerated breathing and tunnel vision. These effects are designed to make the body stronger and keep the mind focused on surviving the situation at hand. When triggers are experienced, the primary message to the mind is that danger is present which kicks in this survival instinct of fight or flight. When we are triggered, our mind releases these chemicals and we feel the same traumatic experience all over again. This is the reason that unresolved trauma produces fear and anxiety in the present moment about the past event.
Sometimes the body becomes so overwhelmed with fear that it disassociates. An extreme example is the act of fainting when encountering a situation that is too much for one to handle. Other examples include withdrawal from others, apathy, lost of interest in activities that were once pleasurable, trouble with concentration, and feelings of sadness and hopelessness.
Because triggers are so hard to deal with, it is not uncommon for individuals to avoid anything that may be a reminder of the event. This includes staying away from people and places associated with the trauma. It can also involve not talking or thinking about the event by stuffing the thoughts and emotions associated with the trauma. Others may find it necessary to avoid society in general staying away from family, friends, and not being able to work.
This occurs when memories of the event flood the mind and body. Specific examples include flashbacks and nightmares. Intrusions can also occur in the form of compulsive thoughts and memories associated with the traumatic event that cannot be avoided. This often times causes hyper-arousal because these intrusions cause one to relive the event and then trigger the release of fight or flight chemicals into the body.
Treatment Of Trauma:
The intention of treating trauma is to achieve post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth refers to the positive change one experiences as a result of the challenging circumstance one has faced. With post-traumatic growth, one can achieve resilience that can be applied to future life experiences and incite positive change in one’s thoughts, behaviors, and actions.
Treatment of trauma should be individualized to the person based on their specific circumstances. Coping skills that work for one person may not be effective for another person. Determining one’s triggers and finding way to effectively cope with these triggers is essential. It is also important to identify ways in which to empower, validate and connect. Empowerment involves instilling hope for change, providing guidance through the process of change, achieving growth, and establishing ways to advocate for one self and possibly others. Validation is critical for survivors of trauma. Many individuals who have not experienced trauma do not understand the extent of the symptoms and effects. Working with a counselor who can empathize and understand the impacts of trauma can provide this much needed validation. People who feel validated are much more likely to feel empowered towards change. Connection is another significant element of the treatment process. Because trauma can result in feelings of isolation and not being understood by anyone, connecting with others can be challenging. Connecting with a counselor is the first step towards establishing a social support system.