We have all experienced trauma to some degree or another in our lives.
Traumatic events can involve:
- Witnessing a car accident
- Going through a difficult breakup
- The death of a loved one
- Happier occasions such as giving birth, although not always associated with being traumatic can also induce trauma responses
What is trauma?
There are plenty of ways to describe trauma; the internet alone is awash with information, some of it helpful, some of it not so much.
Perhaps the most helpful explanation is that trauma is a deeply disturbing or distressing experience.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA) trauma is ” an emotional response to a terrible event like a natural disaster, car accident or rape.”
Examples of trauma
As mentioned, trauma can occur for many reasons.
But, like anything in life, there is a spectrum which offers professionals such as therapists, mental health professionals and trauma specialists, the ability to assess the severity of each case.
Those with adverse childhood experiences (ACE), for example, are much more likely to be at the top end of the trauma spectrum.
The ACE’s include:
- Physical, sexual and emotional abuse
- A child witnessing their mother treated in a violent way
- Substance abuse in the household
- Loss of a parent
- Mental illness
Types of trauma
There are several types of trauma, all of which are dependent on a wide range of scenarios – these include:
- Complex trauma: The result of witnessing a variety of traumatic events
- Chronic trauma: The effect of continuous exposure to disturbing events such as abuse, violence and bullying
- Acute trauma: The impact of being exposed to single traumatic or dangerous events
Emotional symptoms of trauma
Emotional symptoms of trauma include:
Physical symptoms of trauma
Traumatic events can also create a physical response in the body.
In clinical practice, mental health professionals have identified ways in which underlying trauma gets expressed through physical symptoms – such as:
- Digestive problems
- Fast beating heart
- The person appearing to be on edge or jumpy
In cases where trauma is left untreated or undiagnosed, there can be a sequence of severe complications.
The complications that can arise from unresolved trauma include:
- Taking up substance addiction as a way of coping with any unpleasant symptoms
- The risk of developing symptoms of PTSD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Brief Psychotic Disorder
- Suicide ideation
It is essential, therefore, that individuals experiencing any of the emotional and physical symptoms above, seek the help and support of a mental health professional before their symptoms get worse.
Why people experience trauma
Most people are indeed entirely unaware that they are suffering from trauma at all.
Many put their symptoms and negative experiences down to stress which is often vague and unhelpful, particularly when trying to get to the core of the problem.
Fight or flight response
Traumatic experiences can cause a fight or flight response – which in some situations is extremely helpful (such as when you’re being chased by a dog or an attacker).
However, those with underlying trauma tend to get ‘stuck’ in hyperarousal, meaning that they are likely to feel anxious and depressed for months or even years without knowing why.
There might be no actual or threatened death imminent and yet, the individual has a sense of impending dread or doom, without any evidence of an external threat.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Those who have PTSD have some form of a stressful event or underlying trauma stored within the body- these experiences can lay dormant for years’ trapped within the sympathetic nervous system and the brain.
People with PTSD experience a range of symptoms that can be chronic, acute and appear out of nowhere.
Symptoms of PTSD include:
- Hallucinations and nightmares of the event
- Avoidance behaviours such as avoiding places and people associated with the event
- Flat affect
- Immoderate arousal – anger, fits of rage, increased alertness, difficulty sleeping and concentrating
Traumatic experiences and events affect people differently and are mostly dependent on a variety of factors, such as:
- Family history
- Co-occurring mental health conditions
- Childhood trauma events
- Having a history of substance abuse
The tendency to self-destruct
A stress response within the body tells us a lot about ourselves and what might be going on at a level that perhaps we cannot address or resolve on our own.
When a person experiences symptoms of trauma, they may drink their feelings away, or take drugs to escape the trauma symptoms.
It’s hard to say why some people experience severe emotional reactions to adverse events while others don’t. It is impossible to discern.
Trauma symptoms are extremely unpleasant for the person experiencing them, and these events can lead a person to self-destruct through abusing substances and other unhealthy ways of coping.
Five ways to tell if you are suffering from underlying trauma
Psychologists and mental health experts have identified several ways to tell if someone is suffering from underlying trauma or experiencing trauma-related symptoms arising from one or several life events.
These trauma-related symptoms include:
Life-altering events can lead to anxiety, particularly in trauma victims.
Dan Siegal coined the term ‘window of tolerance‘which he used to describe a person’s comfort zone of arousal – this is where a person can function most efficiently.
Since trauma impacts the brain, the individual’s window of tolerance comfort zone shrinks, causing them to experience dysregulated mood states.
Anxiety takes place in the fight or flight response state of hyperarousal.
All this is not the typical type of nerves such as from a driving test or a public speaking event – increased episodes of anxiety in the long-term can wreak havoc on the nervous system, brain and immune system.
Trauma may sink our window of tolerance, but the good news is that there are effective therapeutic methods of increasing our window of tolerance, such as through EMDR therapy (eye movement desensitization therapy).
Addiction is a surefire way to identify whether someone is suffering from underlying trauma.
There is plenty of research to show that adverse childhood experiences can lead to addiction in later life – such as:
- Taking drugs
The Ace Study which was conducted in the 1990s by Kaiser Permanente and the Centre for Disease Control reported a correlation between those with high ACE scores and the propensity to take up high-risk behaviours such as drugs or alcohol abuse.
Addiction (such as when someone has a drugs or alcohol problem) gets distorted as someone having an ”addictive personality” when in reality the roots of trauma are disconnected by oversimplifying the problem or a complete misdiagnosis.
Whether someone suffers from depression or is dealing with unresolved trauma, poor mental health can affect the sleeping patterns of an individual quite significantly.
Symptoms of trauma and depression can be so severe that they have the power to disrupt not only our waking hours but the time we spend resting at night.
Someone experiencing depression, for example, may have trouble sleeping or sleep too much.
Since sleep is responsible for regulating mood, hormones, metabolism and energy levels – sleep disturbances can only exacerbate mental health issues further.
People with trauma-related symptoms (and those with depression) are more likely to experience anxiety and be more hypervigilant; this can create a vicious cycle of destructive sleep patterns that increase the symptoms.
Therefore, someone with insomnia or other sleep-related issues must seek help from a professional to resolve the problem.
Another way to tell if someone is suffering from trauma is when they become dissociated.
PTSD, mental health problems and traumatic events can trigger dissociation, which is the act of disconnecting or separating from ones’ self.
When a traumatic event occurs, the brain looks for ways to shut down from whatever it is that is happening at that moment.
People who have suffered child abuse, for example, can recall details such as the furniture around them, or the texture of the curtains during an attack.
Essentially, the brain shuts off in the act of self-preservation.
Those who have experienced dissociation also experience feelings of detachment known as depersonalization.
All this involves feeling outside of one’s’ body or feeling detached from one’s’ surroundings (derealization).
Those who have experienced trauma tend to report feeling depersonalized both during and after a shocking event.
Struggling to come to terms with historical data
Someone who has experienced trauma will find it extremely difficult to recall the traumatic event (s) and incidence (s) that have led to them being traumatized.
Recalling traumatic memories is triggering and can increase someone’s symptoms, e.g. depression, PTSD and anxiety.
Those with intrusive symptoms such as intrusive thoughts are particularly susceptible to the long-lasting impact of trauma since these unpleasant thoughts can come out of nowhere and at a time when the person least expects it.
The trauma sufferer and the therapist must take time when it comes to exploring historical events.
Historical exploration must be conducted in an environment that is safe and trusting and that when reliving past events, the therapist enables his or her client with practical coping skills.
If someone can’t cope with the regression or reliving past events – this should not be a path that the therapist and the client go down until the relevant coping skills are in place.
Whether someone is suffering from underlying trauma or the symptoms associated with a trauma-related event, they must reach out to a mental health professional who can help.
A traumatic experience can have a detrimental effect on all areas of our lives producing physical symptoms as well as emotional upheaval.
We all deserve to live to the fullest and mental health services such as psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, and 10 step programs are particularly helpful to those wanting to recover from the trauma of their past.
If you think you have any of the above symptoms – whether it be addiction, depression or symptoms of PTSD or trauma, it might be helpful for you to get in touch with a local support group or a mental health professional who can help.
At Tikvah Lake Recovery, we specialize in treating a wide range of mental health problems ranging from addiction, depression, anxiety and trauma.
Living with traumatic memories doesn’t have to be a way of life – there is help out there, and recovery is possible.