Psychological trauma typically occurs after a particularly distressing event or a series of enduring events. Experiencing trauma can affect your mental health, leading to you feeling unsafe and on high alert.
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.
Having a traumatic experience or witnessing stressful events can have a profound impact on our psychological and emotional well-being. If you’ve ever felt that your life or safety has been put at risk, it can shatter your sense of security.
The important thing to remember is that there are many different causes of trauma. It’s not the circumstance or event in itself that signals trauma, but what your emotional experience was of the event. Trauma 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
- there was nothing the person could do to prevent it from happening
What is psychological trauma?
Trauma specialist Greg James explains more about trauma, including how we humans process trauma, what is considered a traumatic event, and what support is available.
Psychological trauma usually occurs after a particularly distressing event or a series of events. The result of this can lead you to feel 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.
Causes of trauma
As previously mentioned, trauma is subjective and can have a variety 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.
Bereavement or terminal illness
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’ve been the victim of physical violence, threatened with violence or even witnessed violence - you could find yourself suffering from symptoms of psychological trauma.
Near-death or unusual experiences
A near-death experience, or an NDE, is a personal event where someone has a vivid sense of death, dying, or impending death. Examples that are commonly referred to include people who have been revived after cardiac arrest or having an ‘out of body’ experience while being under general anaesthetic. It’s thought that about 17% of those who nearly die have experienced an NDE.
Some NDEs can be positive, with some people describing them as peaceful or freeing. However, they can, understandably, be traumatic. The fear of the unknown, loss of control and apprehension that can follow near death and other unusual or spiritual experiences can be difficult to process. This is where counselling can be particularly supportive.
Symptoms of trauma
Symptoms of trauma vary from person to person and depend on the severity of the event. These symptoms can last anywhere 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 sometime later.
The longer your trauma symptoms go untreated, the more psychological damage they could cause. Therefore, it’s important to know when to seek professional help.
Some 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 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.
Something those who have experienced trauma may notice is hypervigilance. This is when your brain becomes highly attuned to potential danger, constantly on the lookout for something bad to happen. You may notice you jump easily at sudden sounds, have a high heart rate and even higher blood pressure. This can cause unhelpful reactions and behaviours.
Like other symptoms of trauma, hypervigilance can be reduced with the help of a professional. Working with a counsellor can help you become more aware of your hypervigilance so you can seek out alternative reactions that support your well-being.
There are many ways you can begin to reduce hypervigilance, from practising self-reflective exercises, e.g. pausing before reacting, tolerating difficult emotions and observing sensations, to creating self-care routines, putting in boundaries with others, even just slowing down.
- Counsellor Greg Savva
Medical trauma refers to any negative or traumatic experience that occurs in a medical setting. Trauma in this instance might be illness, pain, procedures or distressing treatments. This type of trauma can be particularly difficult to deal with as it may lead people to avoid seeking medical help. This might further heighten symptoms.
There are several causes of medical trauma. Here are a few examples:
- Birth trauma. According to the Birth Trauma Association, 4-5% of people who give birth experience PTSD. This may be due to having an emergency c-section or a baby being admitted to intensive care immediately after birth, for example.
- Heart attacks. Many people that experience a heart attack may go on to develop PTSD symptoms.
- Cancer. PTSD is common in people who have had cancer. Many worry about cancer returning.
Similarly to adults, when a child feels intensely threatened by an event, they experience trauma. This kind of trauma in childhood, otherwise known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), can have a severe and long-lasting effect on our well-being. Particularly when childhood trauma is not resolved, a sense of fear and helplessness carries over into adulthood, setting the stage for further trauma.
There is a range of traumatic events or trauma types to which children and adolescents can be exposed to, including:
- sexual, physical or emotional abuse
- witnessing or experiencing violence
Find specific advice and support for child-related issues on our dedicated fact sheet.
Even if your trauma happened many years ago, there are steps you can take to overcome the pain and learn to trust and connect to others again. Trauma therapy is one option that can help you regain your sense of emotional balance.
When to seek help
No matter how major or minor you think your experience was, you may benefit from professional help. As we all react differently to these types of events, it’s 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’re experiencing any of the symptoms on this page 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.
Treatments for 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.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
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. Trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (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 is a type of therapy that incorporates side-to-side eye movements, hand tapping and auditory tones to help you recall and 'unfreeze' traumatic memories. It isn't possible to erase traumatic memories entirely but the process of EMDR can alter the way these memories are stored within the brain - making them easier to manage.
Particularly helpful for those who have repressed any traumatic memories, EMDR addresses both psychological and physiological issues.
This approach taps into the body's ability to hold emotions, including trauma. The therapy looks at what's happening in the body by getting in touch with trauma-related tension. At this point, your therapist can help you tune into your body's reactions and help you process the trauma physically.
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