Trauma is a significant symptom that can affect anyone. It can come up in conversations often, and you might think it’s only reserved for the most extreme situations, but trauma can afflict anyone.
In this post, we’ll go over what trauma is, some examples of trauma, and provide some helpful advice on coping with traumatic events.
What is trauma?
Trauma is a state of mental or emotional stress that occurs from an extremely distressing event. Events that can cause trauma include physical abuse, sexual abuse, natural disasters, violent crime, and war.
Trauma as a way of coping
When people experience or witness something traumatic, their brain and body respond as if the danger was real. The ‘fight-or-flight‘ response is activated, and adrenaline rushes through the person’s veins.
This fight-or-flight mechanism has helped humans survive for thousands of years – it is our ‘survival instinct.’ The problem with trauma is that it can trick us into thinking that we are still in danger, even when the danger is long gone. This often causes people who have been through a traumatic event to relive the event as if it were happening again. Our minds tell us that we are still being threatened, and so we live in a constant state of stress and anxiety, with our bodies on ‘high alert.’ This can make daily life very difficult.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop after someone experiences or witnesses a traumatic event involving death or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.
Symptoms of PTSD may include: reliving the event, avoidant behavior, negative thoughts, and feelings, as well as hyper-arousal symptoms such as being constantly on edge, feeling irritable, having an exaggerated response to something that might not seem threatening (e.g., loud noises).
The trauma cycle
A trauma cycle is a process of re-experiencing or re-enacting traumatic events through thoughts, feelings, and behavior patterns.
People who have post-traumatic stress disorder find themselves sometimes reliving the trauma as if it was happening again. This is a part of the ‘cycle’ – hence the name – and for people who have had a traumatic experience, being caught in this cycle can be exhausting and overwhelming.
Examples of traumas
Some examples of events that could cause trauma include the loss of a loved one or pet, witnessing violence to another person or animal, being diagnosed with cancer or another life-altering condition, shock, disbelief, pain, etc.
Trauma can also be defined as a deeply disturbing or distressing experience that may have happened years ago but still has a profound effect on how a person thinks and feels about themselves and the world around them. This could be bullying you might have experienced, something embarrassing, or a mistake you made.
Effects of traumas
There are many ways trauma can affect our lives, both short-term and long-term.
You might experience impaired social functioning, mood swings, withdrawal from interpersonal contact, disrupted relationships with loved ones. You could also experience sleep disturbances or self-destructive behavior (e.g., substance abuse, self-harm),
Your mental health can also take a toll. Some of the most common effects are debilitating anxiety or fear that even subtle environmental cues can trigger. You could also experience dissociation (a “spacey” feeling, disconnected from oneself), depression, anger issues (more common in men).
Coping skills for those impacted by traumatic events
Many of us feel helpless when we see someone who is suffering from the effects of trauma. It can be difficult to know how best to respond as a supportive person.
Some helpful tips include: allowing plenty of time and space, listening without judgment or advice-giving, accepting where the person is at, treating them as you would like to be treated if the situation was reversed, giving them control over what they can (e.g., food choice), teaching coping skills and allowing them to make their own decisions.
Treatment for trauma
In addition to learning how to cope with your trauma, there are many ways that trauma can be treated.
Some helpful treatments include individual and group counseling, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), meditation/relaxation techniques, and mind-body therapies such as yoga and tai chi. However, it is important to note that the treatment of trauma is a challenging and slow process.
Treating your trauma is not always a straightforward process. Sometimes you’ll have to address specific side effects of trauma in conjunction with treating your actual trauma. For example, if you’re engaging in self-harm or substance abuse, you would have to undergo trauma therapy to address both your self-destructive behaviors and your actual trauma.
Overcoming trauma and coping with it is a lifelong process. You might never be able to forget what happened, but you should be optimistic you’ll be able to move past it.
Dwelling in the past is unhealthy, and it prevents you from trying to enjoy the present. If you are suffering trauma, strongly consider taking steps to address it.