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What is trauma?
Trauma refers to a deeply distressing and disturbing experience that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope with it. According to the American Psychological Association, trauma comes after “a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster”. There are three main types of trauma: Acute, Chronic, or Complex
- Acute trauma occurs from a solitary incident.
- Chronic trauma is recurring and continued in such cases as domestic violence or abuse.
- Complex trauma comes from exposure to multiple, different traumatic events.
Trauma types: acute vs chronic vs complex
Acute trauma refers to a single, traumatic incident that happens in your life. Some examples according to American Psychological Association are
- Sexual assault or rape.
- Physical altercation.
- Major accident.
- Serious injury.
- Natural disaster.
- Witnessing a violent event.
Chronic and complex trauma occurs when a person is “exposed to multiple, long-term, and/or prolonged distressing, traumatic events over an extended period”. Examples of chronic traumatic situations include:
- Being a victim of or witness to domestic abuse.
- War or combat.
- Community violence.
- Chronic illness.
- Neglect, starvation, or deprivation.
Reactions to trauma
Trauma can have a profound impact on an person’s physical, emotional, and psychological health. Trauma responses are a set of behaviors, emotions, and physical reactions that people may experience in response to different types of trauma. According to the National Library of Medicine, “initial reactions to trauma can include exhaustion, confusion, sadness, anxiety, agitation, numbness, dissociation, confusion, physical arousal, and blunted affect.” A person can also experience a loss of hope for the future, become unable to concentrate, and feel “on guard” all the time. They continually replay memories that are disturbing, become easily startled, avoid places and people that remind one of the events, and can feel detached or dissociated from reality.
A common response of those living with trauma is to re-experience traumatic events. This can manifest in a number of ways, including flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts. This could be caused by reminders of the event, a trigger, which “usually involves some type of sensory or emotional stimulation, [a survivor] may relive or remember the traumas that affected their lives so deeply, with varying shades of intensity”. Re-experiencing traumatic events can be intense and terrifying, forcing a person to relive the most painful experiences of their lives over and over again.
Another common response is having episodes of dissociation or feeling numb. Dissociation involves feeling disconnected from reality or one’s surroundings. Additionally, “numbing is a biological process whereby emotions are detached from thoughts, behaviors, and memories” according to the National Library of Medicine. Dissociation can feel as though one is outside their body and disconnected to the world around them. Both dissociation and numbing are the mind’s way of protecting itself in times of severe stress, such as during a sexual assault.
The survivor of the traumatic experience may suffer from emotional dysregulation, or fluctuations in mood. As the survivor replays the event in their mind, their responses to these memories may be “poorly measured, not falling within the traditionally accepted range of emotional reaction”. People may experience feelings of depression, anxiety, guilt, shame, or anger. They may also have difficulty trusting others, feeling safe, or maintaining healthy relationships. These changes can also impact how individuals see themselves, leading to feelings of worthlessness or self-blame. This also may lead to suicidal thoughts or self-injurious behavior. PTSD is closely related to severe emotional dysregulation.
Survivors of trauma may avoid the memories of the event all together. This can include avoiding people, places, or things that are associated with the trauma. Others may not even realize that a person is avoiding as this happens internally within a person. A combat veteran may stop watching the news to avoid seeing stories and depictions of war or a sexual assault survivor may avoid the site of the attack, perhaps altering their way home from work or school.
Hyperarousal, or hypervigilance, is another common symptom of trauma. A hyperactive nervous system is one of the most noticeable physical manifestations of trauma. Individuals feel constantly on edge or alert to potential threats. It’s “the body’s way of remaining prepared. It is characterized by sleep disturbances, muscle tension, and a lower threshold for startle responses and can persist years after the trauma has occurred”. People may also experience physical symptoms like rapid heartbeat, sweating, or trembling in response to triggers or perceived threats. Although this is the way the mind protects itself after a traumatic experience, it can be harmful. “Hyperarousal can interfere with an individual’s ability to take the necessary time to assess and appropriately respond to specific input, such as loud noises or sudden movements”. A person experiencing hyperarousal may perceive a danger when conditions are nonthreatening.
Managing types of trauma
Treatment for trauma can include therapy, medication, and other forms of support. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common type of therapy used to treat trauma, which focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors. Medication can also be helpful in managing symptoms like anxiety or depression.
Specialists in trauma recovery are available to help survivors move past the event. Look for a psychiatrist or therapist with experience in dealing with trauma. Therapists can help individuals deal with trauma by providing a safe and supportive space for them to process their experiences and emotions.
There are also strategies that an individual can take to lessen the effects of trauma in their life. The first is to recognize that one has been through a traumatic event. This would also include recognizing the reactions one has to the event. Reminding oneself daily that you are recovering, trying not to get angry or frustrated with the healing process can help a survivor recover from trauma.
- Don’t overuse alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism.
- Avoid making major decisions or big life changes until one feels better.
- Gradually confront what has happened – don’t try to block it out.
- Don’t bottle up feelings – talk to someone who can offer support and understanding.
- Try to keep to a normal routine and stay busy.
- Don’t go out of the way to avoid certain places or activities. Don’t let the trauma confine your life.
- Set aside time to rest.
- Make time for regular exercise as it releases tension and can help one heal.
- Tell family and friends what you need from them.
- Practice relaxation techniques such as yoga, breathing or meditation, or do things you enjoy, such as listening to music or gardening.
- Express feelings as they arise – talk to someone or write them down.
- Try to confront upsetting emotions.
The combination of therapy and the suggestions above can lessen the effects of trauma and help one heal by developing healthy coping mechanisms that a survivor can use throughout their life.