Understanding and managing psychological trauma
What is trauma?
The term trauma refers to an overwhelming level of stress created through particularly distressing, painful or difficult experiences. These experiences in most cases exceed our ability to manage, cope or integrate the emotions and feelings associated with the event or experience. Psychological trauma can occur on a one-off basis, repeat over a period of time or can be intermittent throughout life.
The sense of being overwhelmed which occurs through trauma can often be delayed by months, years or even decades, as we struggle to cope with the immediate circumstances of the events themselves. Because of the painful and difficult nature of traumatic memories, they are often hidden deep within our unconscious mind and we form defences around them, finding methods of coping until a trigger or event reminds us of our experience and we are re-traumatised and overwhelmed.
The definition of trauma will differ among different individuals due to their subjective experiences not the objective facts. In other words, people will react to similar events differently and not all people who experience a traumatic event will become psychologically traumatised. This difference in reaction could be due to the protective mechanisms some people may have developed within themselves to enable them to cope with trauma.
However, regardless of the source, all psychological and emotional traumas will have factors in common. These are that it was unexpected, the individual was unprepared and lastly, the individual could do nothing to prevent it from happening.
Symptoms of trauma
People who experience traumatic events may often have certain symptoms or difficulties as a result. The severity of these symptoms will depend on a number of different factors, such as the trauma involved or the emotional support received from others. Often these symptoms can last from anything from a few days, to years or decades and often can take some time to be recognised. Listed below are some common symptoms of psychological trauma:
- Shock, denial or disbelief.
- Flashbacks to the traumatic experience.
- Insomnia or considerable difficulties sleeping.
- Anger, irritability or dramatic mood swings.
- Intense feelings of guilt or shame.
- Loss of self-esteem.
- Self-medication, either through drugs, alcohol or food.
- Rationalisation of events or convincing yourself you were to blame.
- Often feeling sad, hopeless or desperate.
- Confusion or difficulty concentrating.
- Constant or regular anxiety and fear.
- Withdrawing from others.
- Feeling numb, disconnected or unreal.
The roots and causes of trauma
Psychological trauma can occur through a number of different circumstances. It often results in the sufferer questioning their history, entire aspects of their life or their belief systems and may entirely destroy their ability to trust others. These psychologically traumatic experiences will often be accompanied by physical trauma which threatens the survival and sense of security of the individual. There are many experiences which constitute improper treatment that may lead an individual to feel violated, mistreated or hurt in some way and often result in deep and lasting psychological trauma.
Below I have listed some of these:
This can refer to a wide range of different experiences, such as physical or violent abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse or verbal abuse. It also includes domestic violence, harassment and bullying.
Experiencing an accident, whether it is a minor car accident or injuring yourself by falling, can lead to a traumatic response. It could result in us being additionally careful when walking down stairs, driving very carefully or refusing to go out to certain places or do certain things. Even if you were not seriously harmed, these sorts of events can lead to long-lasting changes in behaviour, due to fear of the event occurring again.
Injuries to the brain or cancer of the brain can be hugely damaging for the person experiencing it, as well as those around them. With some injuries and illnesses, there can be am altering of personality or key motor skills, abilities and functions can be reduced or in some cases cease entirely. These experiences are painful in the extreme and can often lead to varying levels of psychological trauma.
War or catastrophic events
Being involved either directly or indirectly in catastrophic disasters such as flooding, earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis or volcanic eruptions, wars, terrorist attacks or bombings can lead to varying levels of psychological trauma.
Due to the deep and meaningful connection we can have with others, when someone dies, it can be very painful and difficult. Psychological trauma can occur if the loss itself was traumatic, such as a murder, or if it was sudden, such as a heart attack. We can also develop symptoms of trauma if we had a troubled or complicated relationship with the person who died, which can result in complex feelings we are unable to manage.
Violence in any way can result in psychological trauma of varying degrees. Whether someone has been the victim of physical violence themselves, either in a random attack or in abusive relationship, or witnessed violence on others. These types of experiences can have long-lasting psychological impacts.
Moving on and how therapy can help
The first step in the understanding and recovering from psychological trauma is being able to speak about it. Although this first step is incredibly hard, it is in the long run very valuable. With a therapist or counsellor, you can safely and without judgement begin to start bringing your body and mind out of shock. You can start to uncover your experiences from parts of your mind which you needed to cover up for self-protection and at your own pace begin to once again, trust your environment and regain a sense of wholeness and safety.
It is possible to understand that trauma lies in your past and no longer lives with you in the present and no matter your experience, you can begin to construct a new story about yourself. You can construct a story of your trauma, give yourself the best chance to overcome your experiences and begin to live your life in a way that feels real, meaningful and valuable.
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About Joshua Miles
Joshua's an experienced integrative psychotherapist & bereavement counsellor who's worked with people with a wide array of mental health difficulties, & assisted them in exploring their feelings & experiences at depth. He's helped people gain understanding & clarity of their experiences & difficulties & helped them make positive changes in life.