Trauma: What is emotional trauma and how does one deal with it?
Just like trauma to the body is an injury that causes damage and pain, emotional trauma is an injury to one’s emotional health, triggered by a troubling event. The event can vary from horrific events such as witnessing a death or being physically or sexually abused (which some mental health practitioners call ‘Big T’ trauma) to smaller events that leave their impact in insidious ways (such as someone saying something hurtful to you). While being human entails disappointment and loss at some point in life, some people are exposed to more trauma from a very young age due to their surroundings or family origin.
Trauma can be endured in several different ways:
- Direct experience
- Witnessing in person the event occurring to others
- Learning of a trauma happening to a close or family member (in cases of actual/threatened death, the event must have been violent or accidental)
- Experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of a traumatic event
Exposure to a traumatic event is not uncommon, in fact, one national sample of adults indicated that 89.7% experienced at least one traumatic event. As mentioned above, the experience of trauma can vary by person, but each experience and symptoms are unique to the individual.
What are the effects of trauma on the body?
After experiencing a traumatic event, a stress response (fight or flight) is created by your body in defense. This may include feelings of raised blood pressure, increased heart rate, increased sweating, and loss of appetite. Anything you experience following a traumatic event is a completely normal reaction to an abnormal event. Several hours or even days later after an event, feelings such as shock, denial, sadness, anger, or guilt may come to light. With time, individuals can lead a life free of these feelings and recover from the traumatic experience, however, if these feelings persist, they can lead to more serious health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression.
The side effects of trauma can be long lasting if treatment is avoided. It is important to recognize and take action if you or someone you know experiences the following:
- Emotional & Psychological Symptoms
- Shock, denial, and disbelief
- Confusion, difficulty concentrating
- Anger, irritability, mood swings
- Withdrawing from others
- Feeling disconnected or numb
- Physical Symptoms
- Insomnia or nightmares
- Being startled easily
- Muscle tensions
- Racing heartbeat
However, most people who experience trauma have few lasting symptoms overtime (with the help of treatment!). Two common disorders characterize extreme and/or long-lasting symptoms following an event: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and acute stress disorder.
Childhood Trauma: Setting the Stage for Further Trauma
While most people think we experience trauma as a young adult or adult, it is also common for children to experience trauma. Such experiences include anything that interferes with a child’s sense of safety:
- Unstable or unsafe home environments
- Separation from a parent
- Serious illness
- Sexual, physical, or verbal abuse
- Domestic violence
Experiencing a traumatic event in childhood can result in severe and long-lasting effects such as a sense of helplessness or fear that carries into adulthood. Though children may not develop PTSD, they can still exhibit emotional and behavioral issues following a traumatic experience that can last a lifetime. These experiences can also have a lasting effect on their future relationships such as not being able to fully trust their significant other or having a hard time forming friendships. In order to avoid the long term effects of childhood trauma (e.g., disruption in emotional development, mental health, and behavior) early intervention is critical.
How do I deal with trauma?
Just like dealing with mental health, the first step in dealing with trauma is to recognize it. Some may not even realize that they have been exposed to emotional trauma and only feel or see its effects.
It’s also important to reach out to your social support system for help. Letting others know you’re struggling can help with your recovery and mental health (i.e., not isolating yourself and getting in your head). Looking out for your health and wellbeing is also important in dealing with trauma. This can include taking some time away to deal with your experience, staying away from drugs and alcohol, and keeping a healthy diet can reduce the long-lasting effects of trauma on the body.
Seeking professional help is also essential to your recovery. The sooner the better, but it is understandable to not want to talk about your experience right away. Techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) challenge and change negative thought patterns through identifying situations and recognizing the thoughts that surround it. There are several types of therapy which target dealing with trauma, but finding what works best for you is essential for recovery.