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We all have an idea of what a traumatic experience can look like. However, it is difficult to grasp how trauma can affect our lives. Throughout this article we will explain all there is to know about trauma.
What is emotional trauma?
The word trauma comes from the Greek word for “wound.” It’s very fitting, as an emotional trauma is a psychological wound. Trauma occurs when we encounter situations that are unusual, unexpected, and go beyond our capacity to deal with them.
Emotional trauma is the emotional response given to a shocking or distressing event that a person cannot control. It often leaves the person feeling anxious or depressed, which can linger over time.
According to APA, trauma is an “emotional response to a terrible event, such as an accident, a rape, or a natural disaster.” Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical reactions.
It is important to understand that the dimension of the event does not necessarily define the damage produced by it, or in other words, the severity of the trauma. The effect will depend on each person and on personal variables, such as our history, our social environment or the moment we are in within our life.
The response we have to our trauma may severely impact our quality of life. That's why it’s important to recognize and work on trauma. If we aren’t able to process and overcome a traumatic experience, we may develop other physical and mental health disorders, like anxiety, depression, and even PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
What are the 3 main types of trauma?
As mentioned, trauma is characterized by an emotional response to an event. These events are generally distressing and disturbing, and the symptoms we can experience may vary. However, we can distinguish three main types of trauma:
- Acute trauma is the result of a single event that threatens a person’s security (either physical or emotional). An example could be a natural disaster.
- Chronic trauma is the result of a prolonged and repeated experience of the same kind of stressful events. An example would be prolonged exposure to domestic violence.
- Complex trauma involves the experience of multiple different stressful events. We could find an example of this in a broken home where the children are exposed to highly stressful situations, such as child negligence, presence of drugs, psychological, physical and/or sexual abuse.
Following the given examples, it is important to differentiate between the potential causes of emotional trauma.
4 common causes for emotional trauma
1. One-time events
When we think about trauma, there are specific events that probably will come to mind. These events usually happen abruptly and unexpectedly. For example, a natural disaster can drastically change and impact our whole lives in a matter of minutes, destroying homes and hurting loved ones.
Other one-time events that can result in trauma can be accidents, thefts, violent attacks, or any event that unexpectedly threatens our mental and physical safety.
2. Health-related trauma
Illnesses, injuries, and death are all threats that can appear in our lives. We all know they exist, yet we never expect them to happen to us.
Injuries can have an extremely severe and unexpected impact on our lives. For example, having a brain injury would surely have a big effect on our life. However, apart from the neurological effects, a brain injury can also cause trauma on an emotional level. Moreover, managing a health condition — or providing health care for someone with one — can be a long and exhausting process that can also result in trauma.
Death is another reality we usually ignore. The feeling of loss and grief are part of a very difficult process that often involves overwhelming feelings. It is no surprise that some people are not able to cope with loss in a healthy way, often resulting in trauma (especially if this is a sudden and unexpected death).
3. Relentless stress
Relentless stress, in simple words, is characterized by the constant feeling of stress. Nowadays we tend to normalize these high levels of stress as part of our routine, but the truth is that this can have severe consequences for our health and cognition. And in the most severe cases, it can certainly result in psychological trauma.
4. People-related trauma
Our social and affective circle is usually a safe space, a network we can feel vulnerable with and ask for help in. However, traumatic events can occur even in the places where we are most vulnerable. The shock can be even more devastating precisely because of this vulnerability.
Within people-related trauma, we can distinguish:
Physical, psychological, and sexual abuse
Abuse can imply prolonged exposure to threats and violence within a relationship. The high level of vulnerability we have within a close relationship can leave us open to emotional wounds. This may affect our mental stability, and also tends to affect our approach when engaging in future relationships.
Sometimes, abusive relationships can result in trauma bonding. Trauma bonding happens whenever the “victim” and the “perpetrator” form a connection as a result of an unhealthy attachment. It is characterized by a power imbalance and intermittent reinforcement (alternation of good and bad treatment). This may sound bizarre, but it is part of the reason it is sometimes so difficult to get out of these relationships.
Childhood is an important period of our life. Being exposed to childhood abuse can leave an imprint in us that may last up until our adulthood. A traumatic experience in childhood might be on a macro level, like being raised in a country with an ongoing conflict, or on an individual level, like neglect at home.
Physical and physiological symptoms of trauma
Trauma affects each individual differently and a variety of reactions are usually reported after experiencing trauma. However, even though these reactions are particular to each person, there are some common physiological and physical symptoms.
Both physical and physiological symptoms refer to a bodily response. However, physical means the body itself, while physiological refers to the inner functioning of the body.
6 physiological symptoms of trauma
Trauma changes our body’s functioning. Our body is designed to protect us from potential threats, and so trauma evokes a physiological response. When we experience any kind of trauma, our body reacts with an increase in the reactivity of our sympathetic nervous system. There is also an increase in the level of stress hormones and an inflammatory response.
Physiological trauma symptoms include:
Trauma can affect our perception of pain, and this “feeling nothing” can often result in overall apathy. However, trauma can even affect us by increasing our pain threshold. This is, if we think about it, a very intelligent way our body reacts to protect us from further emotional and physical damage.
It is no surprise that this is one of the main bodily responses we have to traumatic events. Anxiety prepares our body for fight or flight against perceived danger, and when neither of these two are an option, our body goes into “freeze mode.” Our “freeze” reaction is similar to a mouse “playing dead” when caught by a cat, as they realize they can’t fight it or run away from it.
Changes in our sleep pattern
This can include insomnia, nightmares, and night terrors related to the traumatic event.
When our body has been through such a shocking and mentally damaging experience, it becomes very difficult to concentrate on everyday tasks. Trauma responses may impact work, hobbies, or social interactions.
Understanding the inflammatory response system is key in understanding certain physiological reactions, such as fatigue, cognitive changes and anhedonia (which is the loss of capacity to experience gratifying effects, pleasure, or happiness through certain stimuli). These bodily reactions are tied to depression.
When we have anxiety, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, and we feel depressed, feeling irritable is a common reaction. This is another effect of our body’s inner response to trauma.
5 physical symptoms of trauma
A panic attack comes from an overwhelming feeling of acute anxiety, which reaches a peak, and can have a variety of different symptoms depending on the person, such as tachycardia or racing heartbeat, numbness in hands or feet, dizziness, difficulty to catch our breath.
Fatigue and exhaustion
With our body being in such a peak state most of the time, the natural response to this is fatigue and exhaustion, as we are not meant to experience such an amount of stress for such a prolonged time.
Muscle tension, aches and pains
The anxious response our body has sends a signal to our muscles to prepare for the threat we are experiencing (or are afraid of experiencing again, in the case of PTSD). This leaves us in constant alert mode as a defense mechanism.
This can be better understood with the phrase “The body will say what the mind doesn’t.” In other words, this is the bodily expression, through certain symptoms, of certain emotions and feelings that we are not quite able (or ready) to cope with in an emotional way. Psycho-somatization can include symptoms such as stomach ache, headaches and migraines, sexual dysfunctions, skin affections, and many more.
What are the treatments for trauma?
Finding ways to cope with traumatic experiences helps us avoid the negative long-term effects of trauma. It can decrease the probability and severity of lasting consequences in our lives and help manage the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
4 treatments for trauma:
Prolonged exposure therapy
Prolonged exposure therapy is a psychotherapy treatment aimed at teaching individuals to approach trauma-related memories gradually. The intention is to gradually learn that those flashbacks are not dangerous and do not need to be avoided, reducing the mind and body's stress reactions.
Cognitive processing therapy
Cognitive processing therapy aims at teaching individuals to modify and challenge beliefs associated with the trauma that are interfering in their lives. The therapy begins with psychoeducation in order to make the patient more aware of the relationships between thoughts and emotions, which works as an automatic process we rarely question in everyday life. Therefore identifying those non-adaptive processes will help the patient through the therapy to break unhealthy patterns and build healthier associations.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR is a very powerful treatment that is commonly used to treat trauma survivors. It aims to reduce the impact that traumatic memories and thoughts have on the patient. During the EMDR therapy session, the patient will relive traumatic experiences in brief and small doses while the attention is diverted directing the eye movements. This allows the patient to go through the traumatic experience in a safe space and with less emotional upsetting reactions.
Stress Inoculation Therapy
Stress Inoculation Therapy aims at preparing the patient in advance to handle stressful events. In the same way a vaccine works on our body to make it more resistant to a virus, the Stress Inoculation Therapy makes us more resistant to stressors. In the case of trauma, reliving certain memories causes highly stressful emotional reactions, which are of little use after the traumatic situation has concluded. That is why this therapy is believed to be effective in these cases.
8 tips to cope with trauma
Listen to your needs
Our body and our mind are very connected, therefore both can be telling us what we need, but it is up to us to listen. For example, if you are feeling very anxious, maybe talk to a friend or practice a sport that you enjoy. This can ease the recovery process and enable us to discover key factors that can help us deal with difficult situations.
Don’t ignore the problem
This is tempting but certainly a wrong approach. Not looking at the problem won’t make it disappear, in fact, it will probably grow silently and end up coming out in unhealthy ways, such as unhealthy relationship patterns, psychosomatization, depression and anxiety… Recognizing this is the first step to finding a solution.
Find support from your loved ones
In the same way we want our loved ones to find support in us when they are facing a hard situation, it is important to do the same and be able to rely on them if we are struggling. There is no need to suffer in silence. Family members, along with mental health services, are key pillars in your support system.
Treat yourself like a best friend
The least we need is an inner critic that judges our every move, so instead we can turn this voice into a loving and compassionate one, like a best friend that is cheering us on. It is important to first identify our inner dialogue, and then ask ourselves “would I speak this way to my best friend?” If the answer is “no,” then something needs to change.
Give yourself time
“Time heals all wounds” is the quote that comes to mind. No amount of rushing this process is going to make us heal faster or better, in fact, it will do quite the opposite. Be patient with yourself and the process and you will gradually notice a change.
Prioritize yourself and self-care
The same way it is important to seek support from others, it is crucial to support ourselves. To achieve this, add small things into your day that will help you feel a little better, such as exercise, hobbies, and spending time with friends. As individual acts, they may seem to be doing nothing for us, but when they start to accumulate, we start to notice positive change in our overall well being.
Take small steps
If you have ever gone to the gym you will see people at different levels: from the experienced bodybuilder to the person who is a beginner. What all of them have in common is that they started slow. Not one of them started by lifting 200kg weights.
After a trauma, it’s normal to want to rush back to our previous normal selves. However, recovering from trauma takes time, and we don’t do ourselves any favors by rushing the healing process. What we need are small and constant steps to finally get back in shape.
Ask for help
We are not perfect, and most of the time we don’t have the solution to everything. If we are healing a broken leg, we might need crutches to provide additional support for a while. The same happens with emotional healing — only the crutch is our support network, including a mental health professional who is specialized in treating trauma.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
We tend to underestimate how powerful our mind is, and most of the time we aren’t able to understand what is going on up there. Therefore, in order to heal correctly, we need to understand how our mind works and take an active role in maintaining our mental health.
For this reason, it is vital to seek help from a mental health professional. The role of a therapist consists of helping you understand the process you are going through, identifying your mental patterns and programming, and applying techniques to face and overcome certain issues you want to work on.
Our brain has the capacity to survive any event, but it needs our active work to heal even the deepest wounds.
BetterUp Care Coach