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What is trauma?

Trauma is caused by a distressing, frightening or disturbing experience. Something like this can damage a person’s thinking, emotions and their ability to live a normal life.

The word “trauma” derives from two Greek words meaning “to pierce, wound”. That’s what trauma feels like – an internal wound.

It is the reaction to overwhelming stress that seems beyond someone’s ability to cope.

For some people, the negative impact starts immediately after a disturbing event. But in others, it arises weeks, months or even years later.

One well-known form of trauma is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s an anxiety disorder caused by an extreme situation that someone finds traumatic. PTSD affects a third of people who experience a traumatic incident.

Someone who repeatedly experiences serious traumatic incidents, such as abuse, violence or neglect may be diagnosed with complex PTSD. It causes similar symptoms to PTSD and can take years for the person to show symptoms. If you’ve been affected by trauma it’s vital to know you are coping in whatever way you can. So what might seem like a terrible reaction to it is not unusual.

What causes trauma?

Events causing trauma include:

  • Being directly harmed.
  • Severe injury or illness.
  • Harassment.
  • Discrimination.
  • Being bullied.
  • Incidents of war.
  • Natural disasters.
  • Being in an accident.
  • Some childbirth experiences.
  • Witnessing harm, abuse or cruelty to someone else.
  • Boundary violations (psychological, physical, sexual, emotional, verbal).
  • Living in traumatic surroundings, including a household or community.
  • Bereavement, particularly from such as an accident, homicide or suicide.

Trauma is when something happens that makes a person feel:

  • Powerless.
  • Scared.
  • Threatened.
  • Rejected.
  • Abandoned and/or neglected.
  • Invalidated.
  • Unsafe.
  • Not supported.
  • Trapped.
  • Humiliated.
  • Ashamed.

Suffering from trauma is often more severe if it was something that happened in childhood. It’s thought it’s due to this being a crucial period in brain development.

So if a child is for instance abused by someone who’s supposed to be showing them love, it can affect how they trust people for the rest of their life. Trauma from this sort of abuse is thought to gravely alter brain development and a person’s sense of self.

They may spend their whole life believing the world is a hostile place.

This can mean they suffer from extreme anxiety. That may lead them into an addiction in an attempt to deal with it.

In fact, renowned physician and addiction expert Dr Gabor Maté states that every addict he’s ever seen had suffered at least one traumatic event. As well as addiction that has caused many other mental health conditions including depression and panic attacks.

Research shows that childhood trauma not only adversely affects mental health but physical health too. A Canadian study discovered that childhood abuse raised cancer risk by almost 50 percent, even when accounting for unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking.

What are the signs of trauma?

The number of these that someone has can vary from person to person.

  • Disbelief.
  • Shock.
  • Confusion.
  • Denial.
  • Concentration difficulties.
  • Irritability, anger and/or rage.
  • Mood swings.
  • Anxiety.
  • Shame.
  • Self-blame.
  • Isolation and loneliness.
  • Erratic sleep patterns.
  • Nightmares.
  • Fatigue and exhaustion.
  • Appetite changes.
  • Eating disorders.
  • Being obsessive-compulsive.
  • Addiction.
  • Flashbacks and/or intrusive thoughts.
  • Lethargy.
  • Vague aches and pains through the body.
  • Sexual dysfunction.
  • Irrational behavior.
  • Feeling sad and hopeless.
  • Being “emotionally flooded”.
  • Guilt (also called “survivor syndrome”).
  • Being numb emotionally.
  • Being continually alert to any potential danger.
  • An abnormally rapid heart rate.
  • Panic attacks.
  • A feeling of never being good enough.
  • Depression.

The same disturbing event or series of incidents can affect people in different ways. This is because everyone is born with different characteristics.

Some people are more sensitive than others. It’s why one sibling growing up in a household where there’s abuse may not appear to be affected while the other ends up with an addiction problem.

How someone is affected can also depend on:

  • Severity of the trauma.
  • Previous trauma experiences.
  • If the trauma was to do with someone close to them.
  • If the traumatic event/s happened early in life.
  • If the person was on their own during the trauma.
  • If there is still contact with the person responsible for the trauma.
  • How long the traumatic incident/s lasted for or went on.
  • If a person affected by trauma told someone but wasn’t listened to, believed or helped.
  • Stresses and concerns at the time or afterwards.

How do you treat trauma?

There are several methods that have proven successful in treating trauma. Firstly though, someone has to overcome feelings that often stop them from getting help. These are feelings of such as guilt, shame and self-blame.

Our team is very understanding of this and we know it’s quite normal to feel this way. Unresolved trauma will not go away though unless the person is given the right treatment.

Some of the treatment options that work well include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It works on the basis that the way we think about something influences emotions and behavior. The aim is to change thinking or behavior patterns that then change the way the person feels.
  • Exposure therapy. This therapy involves someone being very carefully “exposed” to the traumatic event, either by imagining it, re-creating a similar situation or visiting somewhere that it happened. It has shown to be especially effective in helping people with PTSD.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Using aspects of CBT, this involves the person making a series of back-and-forth eye movements. These allow the brain to effectively process past events that may have been “frozen”.

There are several other treatments that treat trauma, including group therapy, one-on-one psychotherapy, yoga, meditation and art therapy.

We have decades of experience in helping people with trauma. Get in touch with us to talk about how we can help you or someone you know deal with trauma so they can live a fulfilling happy life.

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Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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