What Is Trauma?

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What Is Trauma?

Trauma is any type of distressing event or experience that can have an impact on a person's ability to cope and function. Trauma can result in emotional, physical, and psychological harm. Many people will experience some kind of traumatic event—from the unexpected death of a loved one to a motor vehicle accident—at some point in their lifetime.

However, not all people will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a traumatic event. Although someone might not develop PTSD, they may still experience PTSD-like symptoms immediately after a traumatic event. Many of these symptoms are actually common reactions to a traumatic event.

Types

Trauma comes in many shapes and forms, but there are some common scenarios that are generally considered traumatic. Types of traumatic events that a person may experience at some point in life include:

  • Abuse
  • Assault
  • Car accident
  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce
  • Family or parental abandonment
  • Imprisonment
  • Job loss
  • Natural disasters
  • Physical injury
  • Rape
  • Serious illness
  • Terrorism
  • Violence
  • Witnessing a crime, accident, or death

Trauma often falls into one of three different categories. Some traumas, such as accidents or natural disasters, are one-time events that are limited in duration and scope. Other traumas are long-lasting and ongoing, such as coping with a chronic illness or dealing with repeated domestic abuse. There are also types of trauma that are often overlooked, such as trauma that occurs during childbirth or surgery.

Symptoms

So, what is a "normal" symptom versus an "abnormal" symptom of trauma? This is difficult to answer as everyone's response to a traumatic event is different.

There are, however, some common symptoms that may be expected to occur after a traumatic event. The following are some common reactions to trauma:

  • Intrusive thoughts and memories: After a traumatic event, it is common to experience some intrusive thoughts and memories of the traumatic event. This is especially likely to occur when you encounter something (for example, a person, place, or image) that reminds you of the traumatic event.
  • Hypervigilance: It is also very natural to feel more on-guard and aware of your surroundings after a traumatic event. This is actually a very protective symptom as your body is attempting to keep you safe by making you more aware of potential sources of threat and danger. This natural safety mechanism is going to be more sensitive following a traumatic event.
  • Hyperarousal: Just as you are going to likely be more on-guard, you are also likely going to feel more keyed-up and on edge following a traumatic event. This is again part of your body's natural protection system. Fear and anxiety tell us that there is some kind of danger present, and all the bodily sensations that go along with fear and anxiety are essentially designed to help us respond to that danger. They are preparing us to flee, freeze, or to fight. Following a traumatic event, your body's alarm system is going to be more sensitive in an attempt to protect you from future traumatic events.
  • Feeling unsafe: After a traumatic event, our assumptions about the world being a safe and secure place are understandably shattered. Consequently, people may feel as though any situation or place is potentially dangerous. Places or situations you once felt secure in may now feel threatening and be anxiety-provoking. This is especially likely to occur in situations or places that remind you of your traumatic event.

"Normal" Trauma Response vs. PTSD

As you read through some symptoms that commonly occur following a traumatic event, you will notice that most are also symptoms of PTSD. It is important to remember that having these symptoms does not mean you have PTSD.

  • Although the symptoms below can be distressing, they are often much less severe and intense than the symptoms found in PTSD.
  • PTSD cannot be diagnosed until at least 30 days following a traumatic event because many PTSD-like symptoms are actually part of your body's natural response to a traumatic event, and for many people, these symptoms will gradually reduce over time.

Symptoms to Watch For

The symptoms presented below can be a sign that you may be at risk for developing PTSD. They may cause the expected trauma symptoms listed above to become worse, eventually leading to PTSD. Therefore, it is very important to be aware of the following symptoms:

  • Loss of interest: It is important to keep an eye out for a loss of interest in activities that you used to once enjoy, as well as feelings of being detached from others. This symptom can be a sign that you are ​at risk of becoming depressed. This symptom may also cause you to isolate yourself from others, including important sources of social support.
  • Avoidance: After a traumatic event, it is very common to avoid certain situations, activities, or people. However, you must pay attention to avoidance behaviors. Avoidance usually leads to more avoidance as it reinforces the belief that the world is not a safe place. This avoidance can then lead to a worsening of symptoms and eventually PTSD.
  • Unhealthy coping behaviors: Just as avoidance of activities, situations, or people can be problematic, so can the avoidance of thoughts and feelings. The symptoms people experience after a traumatic event can be very distressing. As a result, people may rely on unhealthy coping strategies (for example, using substances) as a way of avoiding these symptoms. Avoidance is only a short-term solution, and in the long-run, it can actually cause your feelings and thoughts to become more intense.

Diagnosis

If you are having symptoms of trauma, you may be diagnosed with a condition such as PTSD. However, it is important to remember that not all traumatic experiences will lead to a diagnosis of a trauma-related condition.  When you talk to your doctor or mental health professional, they will ask questions about the symptoms you are experiencing and how long ago the trauma occurred.

If you are still experiencing symptoms for some time after the experience and these symptoms have a significant impact on your daily living, your doctor will check to see if you meet the diagnostic criteria for a trauma- or stressor-related disorder or possibly an adjustment disorder, depending on the exact nature of your symptoms.

Treatment 

If you have experienced trauma, it may be helpful to talk with a therapist. Try asking your doctor or a loved one for a recommendation. There are also several websites that provide free searches to help you find appropriate mental health providers in your area available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. A therapist can provide support, as well as help you better understand the symptoms you are experiencing.

Treatment will depend on the symptoms you are experiencing as a result of the trauma. It may involve psychotherapy, medication, self-care, or a combination of these approaches. Treatments often focus on helping people integrate their emotional response to the trauma as well as addressing any resulting mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD.

Psychotherapy

Treatment may involve the use of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help people evaluate thoughts and feelings related to trauma and replace negative thinking with more realistic thoughts.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is another approach that utilizes elements of CBT combined with eye or body movements.

Medications

If you have been diagnosed with PTSD as a result of trauma, there are medications that may also be helpful as a part of your treatment. These medications may include:

  • Antidepressants, including serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Paxil (paroxetine) and Zoloft (sertraline), both of which have been approved by the FDA for the treatment of PTSD
  • Anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines including Valium (diazepam) and Ativan (lorazepam)

Coping

After experiencing a traumatic event, it is very important to put into place healthy coping strategies, such as using social support, and minimizing unhealthy coping strategies, such as avoidance through alcohol or drugs.

Some things that you can do to help process and cope with trauma:

  • Validate your feelings. You don't have to force yourself to talk to others about how you feel; however, it is important you don't try to push away your feelings.
  • Find a support group where you can talk to other people who have gone through similar experiences.
  • Give yourself time to deal with what you are feeling. Don't expect these feelings to go away overnight. In the meantime, take it easy on yourself.
  • Take care of your body. Eat regular nutritious meals, try to get enough rest, and engage in physical activity on a regular basis.
  • Spend time with friends and family. Even though you might feel like being alone, isolating yourself can make it more difficult to deal with the effects of trauma. Allow yourself to lean on people who care about and support you.

It may also be helpful to establish a regular routine or schedule. Traumatic events can greatly disrupt a person's life. They may make a person feel that their life is out-of-control and unpredictable. A regular set schedule can help bring some order and predictability to your life.

Although sticking to a routine won't take away anxiety related to the traumatic event, it may help with other sources of anxiety in your life. In setting a schedule, it is important that you put aside time focused on self-care activities; guard against using your schedule as a way to simply keep busy (for example, throwing yourself into your work) so you don't have time to think about the traumatic event.

If you or a loved one are struggling with trauma, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
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