We frequently use the term “trauma” to describe a traumatic event or experience, such as sexual assault or a devastating natural disaster. It’s critical to distinguish between more common experiences that cause intense stress and anxiety and traumatic events that are incomprehensible to us and can have a significant, long-term impact on our quality of life and well-being.
Traumatic events and experiences can occur in an instant and be unexpected and shocking, or they can develop more slowly over time, such as the toll of long-term abuse or neglect. In either case, trauma is distinguishable by how it affects our ability to function in daily life and how it shakes foundational beliefs and shapes our sense of safety in the world around us.
Trauma can make life feel overwhelming and out of control. As difficult as it can be, it is critical to remember that with the right support and coping strategies, we can overcome this pain and its impact on our lives.
There Are 3 Types of Traumas and Causes
Depending on the event or experience that caused it, you may experience trauma in a variety of ways.
1. Emotional Trauma
Emotional trauma occurs as a result of events or experiences that leave us feeling deeply unsafe and frequently helpless. It can be the result of a single event or part of a long-term pattern of abuse, bullying, discrimination, or humiliation. While some traumatic experiences, such as a car accident or a sexual assault, may cause physical harm, you do not have to sustain physical harm to experience emotional trauma.
Emotional trauma is distinguished by a persistent sense of unsafety as well as other difficult emotions such as fear and/or anxiety. Other physical symptoms, such as chronic insomnia, nightmares, and other health issues, are frequently associated with it. Because trauma can change the way our brains function, emotional damage from trauma is often more harmful and difficult to recover from than physical injuries.
2. Complex Trauma
Many traumatic events are one-time occurrences, such as a violent attack or a near-death experience during a natural disaster. However, trauma can also result from multiple types of upsetting events. Individuals living in natural disaster zones, or in chaotic or marginalized neighborhoods, for example, are more likely to face poverty, displacement, or violence. These situations frequently leave us feeling powerless and unable to escape, and they frequently have long-term consequences for our mental health. This is known as complex trauma, and it almost always necessitates therapeutic intervention to heal.
3. Secondary Trauma
Trauma does not always involve witnessing a traumatic event. Being present at a traumatic event, such as witnessing a parent being violently attacked, can have long-term consequences on our emotional health. This is referred to as secondary trauma.
What about the effects of emotional trauma on the brain?
With the advent of digital imaging, clinicians can now learn more about how trauma affects the brain. When the effects of trauma linger, they throw the autonomic nervous system off-kilter, resulting in a prolonged “fight or flight” response. In turn, the parasympathetic nervous system either checks out when it should be active or goes into overdrive when it should be at rest, resulting in the symptoms listed above.
The brains of trauma survivors were compared to those of the general population by researchers. They discovered that regions of the brain involved in memory, emotion, thinking, sense of self, and conflict resolution are affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The hippocampus, amygdala, and anterior cingulate cortex are among these structures. Changes in metabolic activity, neurotransmitter levels, and neuron health may all play a role in trauma survivors’ increased stress levels.
Reactions to a Traumatic Event
There is no “correct way” to respond to trauma. In the aftermath of a traumatic event, your mind and body do their best to process what has occurred. Physical, mental, and emotional symptoms are the most common reactions. Some of the most common symptoms are listed below:
- Flashbacks to the event
- Difficulty concentrating
- Withdrawing from friends and family
Typical Physical Reactions to Trauma
- Insomnia or sleep disruption
- Muscle tenseness
- Chest ache
- Unexplained chronic pain or health issues
These physical and emotional reactions may occur immediately following the traumatic event or much later when another event or situation triggers a memory of the trauma. Trauma can also cause or worsen pre-existing mental health conditions, such as depression or substance abuse, so symptoms you already have may become more severe as a result of the trauma.
Coping with Trauma
The good news is that there are extremely effective methods for dealing with and treating the stressful effects of trauma. Psychologists and other researchers have discovered that the following actions can be beneficial:
Lean on your family and friends.
Identify friends or family members who can offer assistance. If you are ready to talk about the traumatic event, you could tell them about your experience and feelings. To relieve some of your daily stress, you can also ask loved ones to assist you with household tasks or other obligations.
Accept your emotions.
It is natural to want to avoid recalling a traumatic event. However, not leaving the house, sleeping all the time, isolating yourself from loved ones, and using substances to escape reminders are not long-term coping strategies. While some avoidance is natural, excessive avoidance can prolong your stress and prevent you from healing. Gradually return to a normal routine. Support from loved ones or a mental health professional can be extremely beneficial as you return to your routine.
Make self-care a priority.
Eat nutritious foods, engage in regular physical activity, and get a good night’s sleep. Also, look for healthy coping strategies like art, music, meditation, relaxation, and spending time in nature.
Take your time. Remember that a strong reaction to a traumatic event is normal. As you recover, take it one day at a time. Your symptoms should gradually improve over a few days.
Practice mindfulness or meditation.
Mindfulness is one act that has been shown to help with healing. It is a way of experiencing life in which you make a point of paying attention to each moment. You stay present for everything, from your thoughts and feelings to how things are physically for you. This can help you relieve stress. Furthermore, meditation and breathwork, which are natural extensions of mindfulness, can help you feel more relaxed and settled in your life. All of these are beneficial to healing.
Find the best assistance.
Following that, you’ll want to find the appropriate type of assistance for your situation. If therapy appears to be the right step for you, look for a trauma-informed therapist to ensure the therapist is capable of working with trauma and providing you with the best service possible. Alternatively, attending a support group where you can be around others who have been through a similar situation and find understanding and community may feel more comfortable.
There’s good news if you or a loved one is suffering from persistent trauma symptoms: recovery is possible. Medications may be provided to relieve symptoms, while psychotherapy aids in the processing of traumatic events and the development of suitable coping strategies.
Editor’s note: If you’d like to learn more about healthy coping mechanisms and reversing trauma, read our interview with functional health expert, Niki Gratix.