CCO Public Domain
Source: CCO Public Domain

What Exactly is Trauma?

Trauma is a mind-body reaction that occurs in response to events that involve threats to one’s physical and/or psychological security. Trauma is a Greek word meaning “wound.” Basically, trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that disrupt a person’s sense of safety and security, and lead to feelings of vulnerability and helplessness.

Traumatic events overwhelm an individual's ability to cope with the emotions, sensations, and other information connected with that experience. Trauma may involve a single brief event, an event that lasts for hours or days, a series of events, or a situation that is ongoing. The word ‘trauma’ is often used as a short-hand for both events and their impact because the actual experience of violence or disaster and the aftereffects on one’s sense of self and safety are intertwined.

Although traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. Traumatizing events can be directly experienced, witnessed, or even learned about from others or seen/read about in news reports. In general, the closer to the event someone is, the more traumatized he or she is likely to be. In other words, those who directly experience the event are more likely to be traumatized than those who witnessed or learned about it, and those who witnessed the event are more likely to be traumatized than those who learned about it indirectly. Moreover, the more severe an event is and the longer it lasts the more likely it is to be traumatizing.

Trauma can be especially harmful when it occurs during childhood because children are much more vulnerable and have much less capacity to understand and process their experiences. Childhood trauma results from anything that interferes with a child’s sense of safety and security, including:

  • An unpredictable,unstable, or unsafe environment
  • Extended or repeated separation from a parent/primary caregiver
  • Serious illness or pain conditions
  • Intrusive medical procedures
  • Sexual, physical, or verbal abuse
  • Domestic/Intimate partner violence
  • Emotional Rejection/Neglect
  • Bullying (including cyber-bullying)

It isn't the objective facts about an event that determines whether it is traumatic, but rather your subjective emotional experience of that event. What is traumatic for you might not be for someone else and vice versa. How people respond to events varies considerably, and that response is influenced by multiple factors, including how the immediate environment responds—most importantly one’s family and community. The more frightened, helpless, and alone you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized. However, anyone can become traumatized.

Trauma changes the way in which people perceive the world. It changes how people process information and emotions and can cause lasting harm to people’s emotional and social development by dramatically altering one’s beliefs about safety—both physical and emotional. Trauma interferes with the ability to trust and feel safe. Sometimes this inability to feel safe is strongly and clearly felt but it can also be more subtle, manifesting as a feeling of numbness or a vague sense of discomfort or that something is “off.”

The Effects of Trauma

Research demonstrates that traumatic experiences change the brain and alter certain physiological or bodily responses. Beyond that, experiencing trauma changes one’s life. Your behavior, your outlook on the future, your attitude and beliefs about people are all impacted by the experience of trauma. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in response to trauma. Following a traumatic event, most people experience a wide range of physical and emotional reactions. It's important to know that developing trauma symptoms is never a sign of weakness. These are essentially normal reactions to abnormal events.

The physical symptoms of trauma include:

  • Being startled easily
  • Hyper-vigilance (consistently being on guard)
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Aches and pains
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Edginess and agitation
  • Muscle tension
  • Insomnia or nightmares

The emotional and psychological symptoms of trauma include:

  • Shock, denial, or disbelief
  • Feeling generally unsafe
  • Anger and irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Guilt, shame, self-blame
  • Sadness, depression, feelings of hopelessness
  • Distressing memories or thoughts about the event(s)
  • Confusion, difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty trusting
  • Anxiety and fear
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Feeling disconnected, detached, or numb

In the best case scenario, these symptoms last from a few weeks to a few months, and gradually subside. But even when you’re feeling better or “back to normal,” from time to time these symptoms can re-occur. This typically happens in response to triggers such as an anniversary of the event, and/or images, sounds, smells, and situations that remind you of the traumatic experience. However, the effects of trauma can remain with survivors for much longer—often years, and sometimes even decades. 

Grieving is normal following trauma. Whether or not a traumatic event involves some sort of permanent injury or death, trauma survivors must cope with the loss of their sense of safety and security—at least temporarily. Depending on the nature of the trauma, survivors also often experience the loss of whatever sense of innocence they had. The natural reaction to such losses is grief. Like people who have lost a loved one or gone through a divorce, trauma survivors go through a grieving process.

As indicated above, this is the first of a four-part series.

Copyright 2016 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain

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