Trauma is the response to something – usually one or more events – that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope with it. Everyone experiences and reacts in different ways and the effects of trauma can include feelings of anguish, fear, helplessness and loss of control.
Due to the difficult nature of these events, trauma is often hidden, unreported or denied. There are many reasons for this, including fear of getting in trouble, shame, guilt, or guilt about the event or fear of the perpetrator. Many young people who experience it learn to cope with the effects of trauma, but sometimes extra support is needed.
Different Types of Trauma
Complex trauma can occur in childhood or in adulthood. It describes the experience of repeated traumatic events; such as abuse or neglect, or social trauma such as war or cultural upheaval. Its effects on mental and physical health can be long-lasting, affecting emotional health, well-being, relationships, and daily functioning.
Intergenerational trauma is the experience of trauma passed down from generation to generation by survivors who directly experienced or witnessed the traumatic events. It can lead to higher rates of addiction and mental health problems, as well as an increase in domestic violence and incarceration.
A single trauma can occur when a person is exposed to a traumatic event, such as a car accident, loss experience, natural disaster, or physical or sexual violence. Like other trauma, even a single event can impact a young person’s mental and physical health and well-being and can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Vicarious trauma can occur when you feel or are exposed to the trauma of another. It often occurs in people who work in difficult environments, such as consultants or paramedics. It can also affect someone who cares for or supports a person who has experienced a traumatic event.
Effects of Trauma: How your body reacts to danger
You’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight response” to danger. When we feel stressed or threatened, our bodies release hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. It is the body’s automatic way of preparing to react to danger and it is involuntary.
This hormone infusion can have a number of effects, sometimes referred to as:
- Freeze – feeling paralyzed or unable to move
- Flop – do as you are told without being able to protest
- Fight – fight or protest
- Flight – run, hide or get away
- Fawn – trying to please someone who hurts you
Studies have shown that stress signals can persist long after the trauma is over. It can affect your mind and body, including how you think, feel, and behave.
Shared experiences and responses to trauma
Various reactions are frequently reported and/or observed after trauma. Most survivors have immediate reactions, but these usually resolve without serious long-term consequences.
Indeed, most trauma survivors are highly resilient and will develop appropriate coping strategies, including the use of social support, to cope with the consequences and impact of trauma. Most recover over time, experience minimal stress, and function effectively in key life areas and developmental stages.
Despite this, patients with mild impairment may present with subclinical symptoms or symptoms that do not meet diagnostic criteria for acute stress disorder (ASD) or PTSD. Only a small percentage of people with a history of trauma have impairments and symptoms that meet criteria for trauma-related stress disorders, including mood disorders and anxiety.
The following sections focus on some common responses across domains (emotional, physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, and developmental) associated with single, multiple, and ongoing traumatic events. These reactions are often normal trauma reactions, but they can still be painful to experience.
Such reactions are not signs of mental illness, nor do they indicate a mental disorder. Traumatic stress-related disorders involve a specific constellation of symptoms and criteria.
Emotional reactions to trauma can vary widely and are significantly influenced by the individual’s sociological and cultural history. In addition to the initial emotional reactions during the event, the most likely to emerge are anger, fear, sadness and shame. However, individuals may find it difficult to identify any of these feelings for a variety of reasons.
The individual may have no experience or previous exposure to emotional expression in his or her family or community. He or she can associate strong feelings with past trauma, leading him or her to believe that emotional expression is too dangerous or leads to a loss of control (for example, a sense of “losing it” or going crazy). Still others may deny having feelings related to their traumatic experiences and define their reactions as numbness or lack of emotion.
Some trauma survivors have difficulty regulating emotions such as anger, fear, sadness and shame, even more so when the trauma occurred at a young age (van der Kolk, Roth, Pelcovitz Mandel, 1993). In individuals who are older and functioning well before the trauma, such emotional disruption is usually short-lived and represents an immediate response to the trauma, rather than a continuous pattern.
Self-medication, i.e. substance abuse, is one of the methods traumatized people use in an attempt to regain emotional control. However, it ends up causing even greater emotional dysregulation (for example, induced changes in affect from substances during and after use).
Other attempts at emotional regulation may include involvement in risky or self-harming behaviors, eating disorders, compulsive behaviors such as gambling or overwork, and suppression or rejection of emotions; however, not all behaviors associated with self-regulation are viewed as negative.
Some people even find creative, healthy, and diligent ways to manage the strong emotions generated by the trauma. For example, they may make a renewed commitment to physical activity or by establishing an organization to support survivors of a particular trauma.
Traumatic stress tends to evoke two emotional extremes: feeling too much (overwhelmed) or little emotion (numb).
Numbing is a biological process in which feelings are disconnected from thoughts, behaviors, and memories. A prospective longitudinal study (Malta, Levitt, Martin, Davis, Cloitre, 2009) tracked the development of PTSD among disaster survivors and highlighted the importance of understanding and assessing numbing as a traumatic stress response.
Because numbing masks internal feelings, family members, counselors, and other behavioral health professionals may rate the level of traumatic stress symptoms and the effects of the trauma as less severe than they actually are.
The diagnostic criteria for PTSD place a strong emphasis on psychological symptoms, but some people who have experienced traumatic stress may initially experience physical symptoms. Therefore, primary care may be the first and only way these individuals seek help for trauma symptoms.
In addition, there is a significant association between trauma, including adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and chronic health conditions. Common physical ailments and symptoms include physical discomfort; sleep disorders; gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, neurological, musculoskeletal, respiratory and skin diseases; urinary tract problems; and substance use disorders.
Somatization means focusing on physical symptoms or dysfunction to express emotional distress. Somatic symptoms are more common in people with traumatic stress reactions, including PTSD. People from certain ethnic and cultural backgrounds may show emotional distress initially or only because of physical illness or worry. Many people who experience somatization may not be aware of the connection between their feelings and their physical symptoms. At times, clients may still refuse to explore the emotional content and focus on physical complaints as a means of avoidance.
Getting help for the effects of trauma
People can recover from the effects of trauma. Some people choose to try to cope on their own, but sometimes extra support may be needed. Although it can be difficult to reach out to others to let them go through what you are going through, it can help you feel supported, feel less isolated and can be the start of a valuable support network. Whether you’re talking to a friend or a counselor, it all depends on what you want to share.
You may feel better for a while, but the challenge may reappear unexpectedly. This can happen during volatile times when there is a lot of change or when you are reminded of a traumatic situation. At these times, it can be helpful to seek support, even if you have received help in the past. Seeking support when needed helps make things more manageable. Please get in contact with us and receive help from a Christian counselor who can assist you in processing trauma.
“Sun Over Fields”, Courtesy of Federico Respini, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Distant Waterfall”, Courtesy of Thomas Kelley, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Snowy Mountains”, Courtesy of Eberhard Grossgasteiger, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Tree Tops”, Courtesy of Casey Homer, Unsplash.com, CC0 License