Many people who experience trauma are reluctant to discuss it. Often, they are afraid that others won't believe them, or, worse yet, tell them to get over it. However, if the types of trauma people experience are not recognized and treated, the results can negatively impact trauma survivors for their entire lives. This impact touches every part of a person's life, from their physical and mental health to their ability to develop positive relationships and even to keep their job.
Trauma is not something that a person can "get over". It's not like the common cold that only lasts for so long and then passes, leaving the person feeling well and healthy again. Any of the various types of trauma can have lingering, life-altering effects for the people who experience them.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma is the psychological or emotional reaction to an experience a person finds distressing or disturbing. Trauma can be the result of serious illness, loss of someone close, going through a divorce or other legal problems, or being in an accident. It can also be the result of events that can cause long-term effects, such as sexual assault or physical and emotional abuse. Trauma can leave a person with a heightened sense of danger even when there is no threat present.
Trauma Is Subjective
Everyone experiences events differently, in part due to life experiences. Two people going through the same traumatic event will have very different reactions. One may be upset or frightened during the event, but be able to move past it with relatively little difficulty. The other, however, may experience flashbacks to previous traumatic events in his or her life. This can cause a resurgence of symptoms associated with trauma.
For example, someone who has experienced sexual assaul may become severely uncomfortable when a hearing a news report about a similar incident. That person may experience flashbacks to his or her own experience. The emotional reaction can be as strong as it was during the event. This response can linger for days or weeks.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze
When a person experiences extreme and overwhelming trauma, the fight-flight-freeze response is triggered. This is a physiological response, biologically ingrained on an instinctive level. Often times the triggers are not clear and the response is not thought out. Whether the person responds with a fight, or a flight, or a freeze response depends on the experiences that he or she has lived through.
Symptoms of Trauma
A person experiencing trauma can have a wide range of symptoms, but there are some particular symptoms that are closely linked to trauma. A trauma survivor may not necessarily exhibit all of these symptoms. Initially, most trauma survivors go through a period of shock, and even denial, in regards to the event. But, a traumatic event can leave a person with long-lasting symptoms that impact his or her life. These symptoms include:
Is Trauma Avoidable?
Everyone experiences traumatic events in their lives. It is as inevitable as paying taxes (which can be traumatic for some). It is the individual response that varies from person to person. While trauma is not avoidable, there are ways of successfully treating extreme or long-lasting effects.
Trauma therapy is as individualized as the person experiencing the symptoms. However, therapy treatments fall into four main categories. Three of these therapies treat the unconscious memory part of the brain and are often combined with conscious, body-aware techniques.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps a trauma survivor to become more aware of his or her thoughts about the trauma. It teaches the survivor skills that help him or her put positive reactions in place in response to emotional triggers.
Exposure therapy is sometimes called In Vivo Exposure Therapy. It is a form of cognitive behavior therapy that gradually exposes the survivor to emotional triggers that were caused by trauma. In this way, the fear associated with those triggers is reduced over a period of time.
Talk therapy, or psychodynamic psychotherapy, is a way for the trauma survivor to talk through the event. It helps to ease the negative emotional reaction to triggers and matures and develops the coping skills that he or she already uses. Talk therapy is often used in conjunction with one of the other forms of therapy.
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For some survivors, therapy alone is not sufficient to help them cope with the symptoms of trauma. For these people, there is a wide range of medications available to help lessen the anxiety and depression associated with the event. Medication is usually used alongside one of the therapies mentioned above. In many cases, medication can be gradually reduced over time.
Seven Types of Trauma
Since responses to trauma can vary widely from one person to the next, psychologists have developed different categories to distinguish the different types of trauma. A person could have one or more types of trauma in their lives.
Complex trauma results from harm that occurs repeatedly. The effects of these types of trauma build up over time, compounding the overall effect of the trauma. Usually these harmful events occur within a specific time frame or in a specific relationship. Often, the events occur in the same location every time. The effects of complex trauma are more extensive than those caused by a single event. Childhood trauma often results in complex trauma, which can last well into adulthood.
Maltreatment of Children
The maltreatment of children itself includes four types of trauma which can interact with one another in complex ways. These categories are:
Sexual abuse includes any unwanted or involuntary sexual behavior. The victim is forced to engage in sexual acts against his or her will. Sexual abuse includes groping, fondling, forcing a person to watch sex acts, forced kissing, rape and any other harassment that involves sexual content.
Domestic violence can include all of the categories listed under maltreatment of children. It occurs between adults who are in an intimate relationship.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
While post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is commonly associated with veterans of war, it can occur from any traumatic event. PTSD develops after a person has been through an event where severe physical harm either occurred or was threatened. These events are usually terrifying, leaving the victim in fear for their lives. People with PTSD live with persistent thoughts and memories of the event, often having flashbacks in which they re-live part or all of the trauma.
Developmental Trauma Disorder
Psychologists have recently recognized developmental trauma disorder. During the first three years of life a child's neurological, cognitive and psychological development, their development can be altered as a result of abuse, neglect or being abandoned. This disorder affects the child's ability to attach to parents or adult caregivers.
Community violence can occur in any neighborhood or school. It is the result of actions that are intended to harm people not related to the perpetrator. This can include extreme bullying, bomb threats, and mass-shootings, among other acts.
With the help of a mental health professional who specializes in treating the different types of trauma, it is possible to heal the emotional and psychological wounds that trauma leaves behind. Even though the brain changes in reaction to traumatic events, by working with a mental health professional a survivor can learn how to leave the trauma behind and recover.
It is important for the survivor's family to understand the different types of trauma that he or she is experiencing so that they are able to provide the best level of support they can. Understanding the signs and symptoms can allow family members to help the survivor through the healing process. They can catch him or her when the road to recovery gets rocky or full of potholes. Also, since the effects of the individual's trauma can affect the whole family, this knowledge can help them to find healing.
If you, or someone you know, are experiencing symptoms of trauma, you can find help to heal. You don't have to do it alone. Reach out to one of your local mental health therapists. You will be pleasantly surprised by the difference it can make in your life.