Most people have heard of PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but many people who don’t have full-blown PTSD are still very affected by traumatic experiences. In fact, many people don’t even realize that certain experiences they’ve had could be considered traumatic. People tend to think of combat and serious car accidents as trauma culprits and don’t realize that there are all kinds of experiences that can be traumatic for people on some level.
What is trauma?
Trauma is an emotional reaction to an event that was terrible, frightening, painful, humiliating, life threatening, unexpected, beyond someone’s control or that made them feel powerless. Being assaulted, having your house broken into, getting into an accident, sustaining an injury or witnessing violence can be traumatic. So can losing a loved one unexpectedly, losing a job or house, or losing a limb or certain abilities, such as the ability to walk. Many people are traumatized by experiences with other people such as bullying, childhood abuse (physical, sexual, emotional or verbal), neglect (physical or emotional). For some, the experience of forgetting their lines in a presentation might be traumatic. For young children, surgery or invasive medical procedures can be very traumatic. It’s not the event itself as much as it is a person’s emotional response to the event so you might have a trauma reaction to something that wouldn’t be traumatic for a different person.
How do I know if I, or someone I know, is suffering from trauma?
Sometimes people know right away that they’ve been traumatized by an experience they had or they’re able to connect their symptoms to the event because they have intrusive memories or nightmares of the event. However, denial and shock are common after a traumatic experience so many people don’t realize that an event was traumatic until some time has passed, at which point they might not connect their symptoms to the traumatic event.
Here are some symptoms of trauma:
- Upsetting or intense emotions or a feeling that one’s emotions are out of control.
- Flashbacks of the traumatic event.
- Nightmares that might or might not seem related to the traumatic event.
- Feeling on edge or unable to relax.
- Avoiding situations that remind you of or are similar to the traumatic event.
- Anger, irritability, mood swings.
- Guilt, shame, self-blame.
- Shock, denial.
- Depression, anxiety, hopelessness.
- Trouble concentrating.
- Physical symptoms such as nausea, neck or back pain, headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, racing heart or unexplained health problems or physical symptoms.
- Social anxiety can be a symptom for people who have experienced bullying, abuse or other relational trauma in their life.
What can I do if I think I’m struggling with trauma?
Seek support from friends and family and allow yourself time to heal. Even when it’s unpleasant, it’s very important to allow yourself to experience whatever emotions you might have about the traumatic event. These emotions are a normal part of the healing process and suppressing or ignoring them can interfere with the healing process.
Stick to a routine and provide yourself with structure. Identify activities that make you feel happy or calm and build these activities into your routine. Be sure to spend time with other people even if you don’t always feel like it. Some time alone is fine and can even be helpful for certain people, but isolation will only make things worse.
Take time for self-care. Often after a traumatic experience, people become so overwhelmed that self-care is largely ignored. Lack of sleep tends to make most symptoms worse so make sleep a priority. Exercise helps to boost brain chemicals that make us feel better, such as Dopamine, Norepinephrine and Seratonin. It can also help to release tension and excessive nervous system activity that can build up after a traumatic experience. Eat regular meals and focus on a healthy balanced diet. Skipping meals or eating too much processed food will lead to unstable blood sugar and mood swings, making it harder to manage emotions and cope with day to day life. Make sure you take enough time to relax and unwind and do things that reduce your stress level. Yoga, meditation and relaxation exercises (such as body scans or progressive muscle relaxation) can be very effective stress reducers.
What If I Need Help Getting Through This?
Often, professional help is needed to fully get past a traumatic experience. Psychotherapy with an experienced psychologist or therapist can help in many different ways. Therapy can help you develop the tools you need to cope with overwhelming emotions and to rebuild your relationship with yourself, when needed. Often, there’s a process of rebuilding trust and relationships with other people as well. Therapy can also help you cope with memories of the event so that they don’t feel so intense and so that they don’t come up as frequently or intrusively. If you were particularly young at the time of the trauma or if it happened repeatedly (such as abuse, neglect or domestic violence), you might feel a need to rebuild your sense of self and alter the patterns that you have developed over the years to cope with your experiences. Psychotherapy for trauma can help you come to terms with what happened, regain your sense of control and rebuild your life. Working through your trauma in therapy can lead to re-traumatization when not approached properly by a psychotherapist with specific trauma training so be sure to work with someone who specializes in trauma treatment.
Read here for more information on causes of trauma.