Have you experienced trauma? Most people actually have. So we need to really ask: What is trauma?
Physical trauma is trauma to the body—it can be an accident, a blow, an illness. Psychological trauma, trauma to the mind, is more complex. In essence: trauma is an emotional/psychological response to an event or events which are shocking, violent, painful and so on.
Although there can be one-time events such as 9/11, rape, natural disaster and crime, which can cause some people to experience trauma, often trauma is the result of ongoing painful situations which a person has to live with.
For example, under the umbrella, let’s say, of a period of homelessness, are multiply-occurring events which can be traumatic: hunger, sleeping “rough,” extremes of cold/heat and exposure to the elements, inability to bathe or shower, crime and being shamed by others, all joined with the fear or terror of hopelessness (feeling there is no way out).
Witnessing violence is often traumatic, especially in the case where an individual sees someone beloved or even just known to them, hurt.
Living through war and (extreme) political and cultural unrest can also be traumatic. For example, consider the effect of forced fighting and hunger the children of Sudan live with. Children have been actively hunted and tortured (and enslaved), an evil that seems almost unbelievable, but exists in several developing nations. These children are deeply traumatized, and the symptoms of trauma express themselves in a variety of ways (we’ll write about symptoms later).
But less extreme examples exist. And what might not be very traumatic to one person, may be more so to someone else.
For example, bullying has been in the news and rightfully so. But, although many children do find bullying traumatic, and may carry the trauma with them and struggle with it’s effects through various life-events, others find it less so. While writing about the topic, C.R. spoke with a parent, Judy N., who’s nine-year-old son, Jake, was repeatedly bullied in school the previous year.
“We supported him fully. We worked together with the school to address the problem. I hate to use a cliche, but I know Jake felt empowered and came out far stronger at the end of everything. Now, he’s a confident boy and the other children look up to him. I see this in how popular he’s become. It seems impossible, but bullying opened up a new door of positivity in our lives, not just Jake’s.”
How does trauma get dealt with? It depends on various factors, the main ones include:
type/seriousness/nature of the traumatic event
person’s emotional resilience, personality, belief/faith
person’s access to a support system, and even his belief/faith.
All these have a role to play.
Symptoms of trauma (there is some overlap, in our list, below), and which may fall under the title, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, are many, and may include:
panic attacks/anxiety symptoms (dizziness, rapid heart rate, difficulty swallowing, terror/fear, and so on)
acute-stress reactions/stress disorders
irritability and agitation
nightmares and insomnia
dissociation and emotional detachment or “shut-down”
poor self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness which may include self-sabotaging behavior, self-destructive/risky behavior (which may lead to behavioral/chemical addictions) and self-harm
repeating/reenacting the trauma on others (for example, if a child is beaten or humiliated, he might do the same to others throughout his life)
self-medicating, which may lead to substance abuse and addiction (this is common, many of the clients we see with addictions have been traumatized)
Often, painful feelings about past traumas can trigger uncomfortable feelings in the present, even if the present events one experiences aren’t immediately threatening. A trigger can be anything: loud voices, a scary movie, seeing a fight, even a sign or symbol.
In this article, C.R. writes about holocaust survivors who recently had to cope with swastikas painted in their neighborhood. For most people, seeing the swastikas was unpleasant, but not earth-shattering; for those who survived Auschwitz or were victims of other Nazi atrocities, extremely complex emotions surfaced, including difficult-to-articulate painful feelings.
Trauma is something these people in their 80s, 90s, and even 100s, still cope with.
More on trauma, soon.
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Last reviewed: 22 Jun 2012