WHAT IS TRAUMA?
The word “trauma” was initially used in ancient Greek and Latin to mean “a wound, a hurt.” In the 1890s, it was defined as “a psychic wound, unpleasant experience which causes abnormal stress.” Today, we have developed a more nuanced understanding of this phenomenon: trauma is a response to distressing events that overwhelm your coping mechanisms.
Traumatic events can take many forms and will impact every person differently. Two people can undergo the same experience, and in the end, just one of them walks away with life-altering side effects. As such, treatment for this should be highly individualized, even when provided in a group setting.
Generally, traumatic events have a few common threads. For example, you’re more likely to be traumatized if you were unprepared for an event (or if it was unexpected), if it was severe, if you lacked coping mechanisms (especially common for children), or if you felt powerless to prevent it.
Common types of traumatic events include exposure to violence, sexual abuse or assault, neglect, severe injury or illness, death of a loved one, car accidents, divorce, being the victim of a crime, verbal or physical abuse, natural disasters, and more. You may also be traumatized by witnessing any of these events yourself, especially if you were young and had no way to prevent them. Many of us have experienced trauma and have dismissed it. Trauma occurs when human needs are not met on a relatively consistent basis, including the need to ‘process’ trauma-producing moments or experiences.
HOW TRAUMA MANIFESTS
No matter what your history of trauma is, you probably feel its effects in your day-to-day life. A lot of the maladaptive behaviors associated with this diagnosis originally began as coping mechanisms for self-protection: increased awareness, self-medication, and numbing, for example. Other issues – like eating disorders, sexual disorders, and financial disorders – are common ways that unresolved trauma can surface and recycle in a self-defeating manner.
Long after the traumatic event has passed, many people report turbulent emotions and sleep problems – even though they cannot identify exactly where those things have come from. Others experience panic attacks and regressive responses when exposed to their triggers. It’s not uncommon for those with a history of trauma to turn to drugs, alcohol, and harmful behaviors to cope with their experience. They report feeling “trapped in time,” perceiving everything through the lens of past experiences in which they felt out of control, fearful, or powerless.
Common symptoms which result directly from the trauma, especially physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, include:
- Sleep problems (can’t fall asleep, night terrors)
- Emotional restriction, numbing
- Mood swings
- Panic attacks
- Poor memory
- Difficulty concentrating
- Pronounced startle reflex
- Regressive response to triggers reminiscent of trauma (smells, sounds, dates)
- Excessive anger
- Isolation, withdrawal
- Anxiety, depression
- Needing to feel “in control”
- Addictions to mind-altering drugs
- Dissociating (“spacing out”)
- Physical tension, pain
- High-risk behaviors
- Cutting, self-mutilation
- Difficulty identifying, expressing feelings
- Fear of intimacy
- Boundary issues
If any items mentioned on this list resonate with you and are impeding your ability to function in daily life, we encourage you to seek trauma treatment today.