Trauma refers to the body or mind being overwhelmed by traumatic events. Psychological trauma in particular occurs as a result of a distressing event that leads the sufferer to question their beliefs while destroying their assumptions of trust. If you have experienced a traumatic event, you may feel socially disconnected and somewhat numb, leading to feelings of isolation. On top of this, you may find yourself feeling more afraid and vulnerable than before the event.
Psychological trauma is the mind's reaction to an event and not everyone will react to the same event in the same way - for example, some people would find falling from a height traumatic, while others choose to jump out of planes for fun. Trauma also affects people in different ways and for some, the symptoms take weeks, months or even years to surface.
Regardless of its source, an emotional trauma contains three common elements:
- it was unexpected;
- the person was unprepared; and
- there was nothing the person could do to prevent it from happening.
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What is psychological trauma?
Psychological trauma usually occurs after a particularly distressing event or a series of enduring events. The result of this can lead you to feel totally overwhelmed and unable to cope. These events are typically so far outside what we expect and what we believe that our reactions can seem somewhat unusual or even disturbing. Reactions like this are normal though, and should be expected after trauma.
The most common term used to describe the symptoms of psychological trauma is post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Categorised as an anxiety disorder, PTSD occurs after a traumatic event and refers to ongoing, severe symptoms such as flashbacks and insomnia. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will go on to develop PTSD.
There are different severities of psychological trauma, some symptoms are mild and may go away with time, while others can be more severe (such as PTSD) and will require professional treatment. When it comes to trauma, the sooner you seek help the better.
Causes of trauma
As previously mentioned, trauma is subjective and can have a multitude of causes. The common factor for events that lead to trauma is that they are not anticipated and are outside the realms of what we deem to be acceptable - physically, emotionally or socially. Below are some examples of events that could lead to psychological trauma.
This can refer to physical, emotional, sexual or verbal abuse. Anything that can be described as improper treatment that leads you to feel violated in some way constitutes abuse. The traumatic event could be a one-off attack or a recurring form of abuse that takes place over long periods of time.
Being involved in an accident can lead to a traumatic response. Examples include car accidents, a bad fall and accidentally harming someone else. Even if you were not physically harmed by the accident in question, being involved and experiencing the event can still lead to traumatic feelings.
Brain tumour and brain injury
Injuries and cancer of the brain can be catastrophic for both the person affected and those around them. In some cases, such injuries and illness can alter personalities or affect key motor skills - both of which can lead to symptoms of psychological trauma.
This can relate to natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes as well as man-made events like war and bombings. Being involved in these kinds of events can affect you both directly and indirectly.
Some physical injuries can change your life forever. You may have had a limb amputated and need to learn to cope with your new disability, or you may be left with physical scarring and chronic pain. Either way, this kind of trauma often requires a great deal of emotional support alongside physical rehabilitation.
Whether it's yourself or someone close to you who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, traumatic symptoms are often experienced. Equally, when someone close to you passes away (whether it's expected or unexpected) you can start to question your belief system and shut down emotionally.
Experiencing violence in any way can be traumatic. Whether you have been the victim of physical violence, threatened with violence or even witnessed violence - you could find yourself suffering from symptoms of psychological trauma.
Symptoms of trauma
Symptoms of trauma vary from person to person and depend on the severity of the event. These symptoms can last anything from a couple of days to decades if treatment isn't sought. Some people also find that they do not notice any symptoms immediately after the event as they can often occur some time later.
Common symptoms of psychological trauma include:
- Flashbacks – When you re-experience the traumatic event mentally or physically.
- Insomnia – After a traumatic experience it is common to have difficulties sleeping due to nightmares or due to mentally going over details of the event.
- Anxiety – Feeling constantly anxious after a trauma is very common. Sometimes these feelings turn into anxiety disorders such as PTSD or panic attacks.
- Stress – Even if you handled stress very well before your experience, many people find stress harder to manage after a traumatic event.
- Anger – Feeling angry after a trauma is very common. You might be angry at the person who traumatised you, at the event itself or even at the world. This can lead to outbursts and other anger management issues.
- Depression – Many people fall into a depression after experiencing something very distressing. You can be left wondering why the event happened to you - leading to dark moods and in severe cases, suicidal thoughts.
- Loss of self-esteem – It can be easy to lack self-belief and self-confidence after you have experienced something traumatic. You can be left questioning your identity and what you have to offer the world.
- Self-medication – For some, the only way they feel they can deal with what happened is by self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. This leads to very self-destructive behaviour and can isolate you from friends and family.
- Emotional detachment – For some, the emotions brought up are so severe that they cannot deal with them at all. This can lead to emotional numbness, also known as dissociation. You may refuse to deal with any psychological issues you have and could appear cold and distant to others.
The longer your trauma symptoms go untreated, the more psychological damage they could cause. Therefore it is important to know when to seek professional help.
When to seek help
No matter how major or minor your traumatic experience was, you might benefit from professional help from a counsellor. As we all react differently to these types of events, it is important not to compare yourself to other people, even if they went through the same experience. By getting help as soon as you need it, you will be giving yourself the best chance to overcome any issues and move on with your life. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described above and they are persisting for weeks or even months, be sure to seek help.
It is especially important to get help if you experience any of the following:
- You feel unable to function in day-to-day life.
- You are unable to form or maintain relationships.
- You are self-medicating with drugs and/or alcohol.
- You are experiencing severe flashbacks.
- You feel emotionally numb.
- You are suffering from an anxiety/stress disorder due to trauma.
There are many different treatment options for those going through psychological trauma; the key is finding a treatment that works best for you. Treatments generally involve acknowledging and processing trauma-related memories while releasing any pent up 'fight-or-flight' energy. Learning how to regulate strong emotions and building an ability to trust again is also essential.
The type of treatment you receive will depend on a number of factors, including the kind of trauma you experienced, your personality and your counsellor. These three treatment options are some of the most common when dealing with psychological trauma and are often combined.
This technique utilises the body's unique ability to heal itself by focusing on bodily sensations as opposed to thoughts and memories. The therapy looks at what's happening in the body by getting in touch with trauma-related tension. At this point, natural survival instincts take over and the participant releases pent-up energy by crying, shaking and other physical reactions.
One of the most popular therapies used by counsellors today, CBT looks at changing the way individuals think and how they react to these thoughts. With psychological trauma, CBT helps to process and evaluate thoughts and feelings about the trauma. This treatment is often paired with other physiological therapies such as Somatic Experiencing to ensure all elements of the trauma are addressed.
Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR incorporates CBT with eye movements and other rhythmic left to right stimulation. These motions help by 'unfreezing' traumatic memories, letting you then resolve issues as they surface. Particularly helpful for those who have repressed any traumatic memories, EMDR addresses both psychological and physiological issues.
Advice for trauma sufferers
Following a traumatic event it can be hard to know what to do with yourself, everyday tasks suddenly become incomprehensible and you may struggle to return to normal life. As well as seeking professional help from someone like a counsellor, keeping these tips in mind may help you.
- Don't isolate – It can be very easy to fall off the social radar after a trauma, but connecting with others will help to heal you. Keep a strong support network around you whether it's your friends, family or a support group.
- Ask for help – For some, asking for help is the hardest part of dealing with a traumatic event. Recognising when you're not coping is imperative and can help you move forward.
- Participate in social activities – By taking part in activities you used to enjoy, you will remind yourself of who you are as a person and reconnect to real life.
- Volunteer to help others -– Many sufferers feel helpless following their trauma, one way to challenge this is by volunteering. This will help you move on from your trauma and will remind you of your strengths.
- Stick to a daily routine – Keeping a routine going after a trauma will help to keep you grounded and will help you feel more like 'you' and less like a victim.
- Acknowledge feelings as they occur – For some, feelings and memories can arise at any time, being prepared to acknowledge and deal with them will be key to your recovery.
- Look after yourself – Try to get as much rest as possible, eat well and exercise if you can. Looking after yourself physically will lead to you being able to look after yourself emotionally.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs – It can be tempting to avoid the issue all together with alcohol and drugs, but doing this will ultimately lead to self-destructive behaviour and won't help you recover or move on.
- Learn relaxation techniques – Reducing stress and easing tension with meditation, yoga, deep breathing or massage therapy will help you to calm down and rationalise your thoughts.
What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?
Currently there are no official rules or regulations stipulating what level of training a counsellor dealing with trauma needs. There are however several accredited courses, qualifications and workshops available to counsellors to improve their knowledge of a particular area, so for peace of mind you may wish to check to see if they have had further training in issues regarding trauma.
For further information about post-traumatic stress disorder and recommended treatments, please see our dedicated page.
What our experts say
- Moving on from stress and trauma
Angela Keane, PgDip, MBACP28th January, 2016
- Understanding and managing psychological trauma
Joshua Miles MBACP Integrative Psychotherapist & Bereavement Counsellor26th January, 2016
- Mindfulness; right here, right now
Ian Woollams MBACP22nd January, 2016
- Working with trauma
Ian Woollams MBACP26th December, 2015
- The quick and easy guide to trauma related anxiety
Bob Finch BSc, PGDip (counselling), MBACP, FCIH, MCMI, CMgr.23rd December, 2015
- Will I ever feel safe to talk about past traumatic events?
Alison Sutcliffe MBACP & ACTO Member9th November, 2015
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