Everyone has been through some trauma – whether it is big or small, it’s important to understand our wounds and how they’ve shaped us.
Traditionally, the word “trauma” evokes images of sexual assault, childhood abuse, death of a child or P.T.S.D. from combat. In reality, trauma can be defined as any life disturbing event that is still affecting your present life in a negative way.
If you’ve gone through a traumatic experience, you may be struggling with upsetting emotions, frightening memories, constant anxiety or a sense of danger that you just can’t shake. Or you may feel numb, disconnected or unable to trust other people. Traumatic experiences may involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. Negative early childhood messages from parents or peers can cause trauma, sometimes leading to low self-esteem, self-doubt, relationship issues and addiction. It is not the situation alone that determines whether an event is traumatic, but the subjective emotional experience of the event.
When bad things happen, it can take a while to get over the pain and feel safe again. But with treatment and support from family and friends, you can recover from emotional and psychological trauma. Whether it happened years ago or yesterday, you can heal and move on.
A stressful event is most likely to be traumatic if:
- It happened unexpectedly.
- You were unprepared for it.
- You felt powerless to prevent it.
- It happened repeatedly.
- Someone was intentionally cruel.
- It happened in childhood.
Emotional and psychological trauma can be caused by single-blow, one-time events, such as a horrible accident, a violent attack, or a natural disaster. Trauma can also stem from ongoing, relentless stress, such as living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, struggling with cancer, or an abusive relationship.
Commonly overlooked sources of emotional and psychological trauma:
- Falls or sports injuries
- Surgery (especially in the first 3 years of life)
- The sudden death of someone close
- An auto accident
- The breakup of a significant relationship
- A humiliating or deeply disappointing experience
- The discovery of a life-threatening illness or disabling condition
Following a traumatic event, most people experience a wide range of physical and emotional reactions. These are normal reactions to abnormal events. These symptoms and feelings typically last from a few days to a few months, gradually fading as you process the trauma. But even when you’re feeling better, you may be troubled from time to time by painful memories or emotions — especially in response to triggers such as the anniversary of the event; or an image, sound, or situation that reminds you of the experience.
Trauma, the Body and the Brain
Trauma disrupts the body’s natural equilibrium, freezing you in a state of hyper-arousal and fear. In essence, your nervous system gets stuck in overdrive. Successful trauma treatment must address this imbalance and reestablish your sense of physical and emotional safety.
Trauma also disrupts the functioning of the brain by affecting information processing and the integration of information in different levels and structures of the brain. Because of this, it may be next to impossible to integrate traumatic memories into the present without professional help.
When to seek professional help for emotional or physical trauma
Recovering from a traumatic event takes time, and everyone heals at his or her own pace. But if months have passed and your symptoms aren’t letting up, you may need professional help from a trauma expert.
It’s a good idea to seek professional help if you are:
- Having trouble functioning at home, school, or work
- Suffering from severe fear, anxiety, or depression
- Unable to form close, satisfying relationships
- Experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks
- Avoiding more and more things that remind you of the trauma
- Emotionally numb and disconnected from others
- Unable to regulate your bodily and emotional states
- Are in fight, flight or freeze mode most of the time
- Using alcohol or drugs to feel better
And are experiencing any of the following physical or emotional symptoms:
- Insomnia or nightmares
- Being easily startled
- Racing heartbeat
- Aches and pains
- Difficulty concentrating
- Edginess and agitation
- Muscle tension
- Anger, irritability, or mood swings
- Guilt, shame, self blame
- Feeling sad or hopeless
- Anxiety and fear
- Withdrawing from others
- Feeling disconnected or numb
Successful trauma treatment will include the following:
- Physical, emotional, and intellectual regulation skills – such as body awareness, relaxation, containment, and visualization skills.
- Processing of traumatic memories and feelings
- Discharging pent up “fight, flight, or freeze” energy
- Reestablishing confidence, competence, and connection