Trauma is generally understood as the response to a traumatic experience, event, or an incident that threatens one’s own life or the bodily integrity of another in close proximity or relationship to you. In order to qualify as a traumatic event, the element of threat or harm to life or body must be present.
Trauma or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD can be caused by or associated with a wide variety of events, but there are a few common aspects. Typical causes of trauma include a serious threat to one’s life or physical integrity, a serious threat or harm to one’s children, spouse, or other close relatives or friends, but can also include situations such as accidents, surgery, sexual abuse, war, mass violence, police brutality, bullying, domestic violence, being raised in a drug addicted or alcohol fueled environment, life-threatening medical conditions, medication-induced trauma, etc. Trauma can have also been determined to be positively correlated to long-term exposure to extreme poverty emotional, and verbal abuse.
Trauma can be grouped into four key components based upon the individual’s response to the traumatic event. The four components include:
- Hyperarousal. Individuals experiencing hyperarousal experience increased heartbeat and breathing, agitation, interruptions in sleeping or eating patterns, tension, etc.
- Constriction. Often when we experience and react to a life-threatening situation, hyperarousal is likely to occur which is usually accompanied by constriction in our body and distorting our perceptions.
- Dissociation. Dissociation is one of the most common and subtle symptoms of trauma as it allows the sufferer to separate themselves mentally from the painful and traumatic experience.
- Freezing. When fight and flight responses are thwarted, we instinctively move towards a fixed or immobility response as a last ditch effort to avoid further pain or distress.
Following a traumatic experience, we all respond and react in different ways, at different times. After experiencing trauma, people may go through a wide range of normal responses. Reactions to trauma can extend beyond the person directly experiencing the event to those who have witnessed or heard about the trauma, or been involved with those immediately affected. Many reactions to trauma can be triggered by memories of the event, persons, places, or things associated with the trauma. However, some reactions to trauma may appear completely unrelated to the traumatic event or experience.
Potential Physical Responses to Trauma:
- Body aches and pains
- Extreme feelings of panic or anxiety
- Interruptions in sleeping and eating patterns
- Increased drug or alcohol consumption
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Feelings of nausea
Potential Emotional Responses to Trauma:
- Chronic fear
- Bursts of anger or rage
- Flashes and or recurrent visual images of the event that feel real
- Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
- Loss of interest in activities and life itself
- Minimization or denial of feelings or significance of event
- Avoidance of people or places that may trigger a memory of the traumatic event
- Emotional numbing
- Suicidal thoughts or ideations
- Cognition issues
Unfortunately, some people will experience a trauma event at some point in their lives, and as a result, some will experience debilitating symptoms that interfere with daily functioning. Many people who have suffered a traumatic event or suffered from long-term exposure may repeatedly re-experience the ordeal in the form of flashback episodes, memories, nightmares, or frightening thoughts, especially when they are exposed to events or objects that remind them of the trauma. Untreated trauma or PTSD can cause psychological distress the sufferer is living in a hyper-aroused state.
People suffering from the latent effects of Trauma or PTSD may have a co-occurring mental health issue such as one or more of the following:
- Anxiety Disorder
- Bipolar Disorder
- Substance Abuse
- Co-occurring Disorders
When considering traumatic events and individual responses to those events, it is important to not only recognize the importance of immediate intervention to mitigate symptoms but also help those suffering from trauma and PTSD develop strategies to manage symptoms, limiting the possibility of symptom re-emergence.