These days people are increasingly familiar with the term "PTSD". PTSD is a specific diagnosis of a specific degree or intensity of trauma; many people suffer from trauma even without having all the symptoms it takes to diagnose PTSD.
Symptoms of trauma can include being overwhelmed with upsetting emotions, experiencing frightening memories, or feeling a sense of constant danger, of "waiting for something bad to happen." Symptoms can include feeling numb, disconnected, and unable to trust other people, or feeling that the world is an unsafe place. Aside from well-known and obvious events such as military experiences and natural disasters, trauma can result from childhood experiences, motor vehicle accidents, assaults, abuse, injuries, surgery, or the diagnosis of a life-threatening disease, or of a disabling condition. Anxiety and/or depression are sometimes the surface symptoms of trauma, as can be anger or irritability.
Trauma can result from any situation in which
a) a person experiences or feels under threat of any form of violence or injury, or
b) witnesses someone else being subjected to violence or injury, or
c) learns of this happening to someone close to them, or
d) is exposed in some way to this kind of event. In other words, there are multiple ways a person can be traumatized, and we are not always aware – at the time of event, or even later – that we were traumatized by the experience.
Symptoms can include recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive memories in the form of nightmares, flashbacks, feeling intense or prolonged emotional distress in reaction to reminders of the trauma, and/or feeling intense physical symptoms in reaction to reminders of the traumatic event. Symptoms can also include efforts to avoid thinking about, remembering or talking about the event(s), avoiding feelings related to the event (including through the use of alcohol, drugs or other addictive behaviours) and /or avoiding reminders of the event (e.g., people, places, conversations, activities, objects, or situations).
Trauma symptoms often also include changes in thought patterns and or mood since the event, such as: an inability to recall key features of the traumatic event; negative beliefs and expectations about oneself or the world (e.g., "I am bad," "The world is completely dangerous"); obsessively blaming oneself or others for causing the traumatic event or for the resulting consequences; persistent negative feelings such as fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame; loss of interest in activities one used to enjoy; feeling alienated from others; difficulty feeling positive emotions.
Symptoms can also include changes in patterns of behaviours and reactions such as: irritable or aggressive behaviour; self-destructive or reckless behaviour; hypervigilance (always being watchful, alert for threats or danger); an exaggerated startle response; problems in concentration; sleep disturbances.
Causes of Trauma
Although we sometimes have ideas about which situations can be "traumatic" and which ones aren't, specialists in trauma recognize that trauma is defined by how a person reacts - how they experience the event or situation. Traumatic experiences often involve a perceived threat to your life or your safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. No two people will react to any situation exactly the same way. There are multiple factors that can contribute to one person being traumatized when another, in a similar situation, is not. Our early life experience, how we perceive ourselves and the world we live in, the strength of our family and social support systems, the nature of the event, how we perceive and experience the event, all contribute to how we experience any event or situation.
Trauma can be the result of one event, or of an ongoing experience (such as childhood neglect or abandonment, abuse, poverty, or any chronic, ongoing threats to safety.) Trauma can even result when nothing actually happened to us, but we heard about it happening to others, and/or strongly imagined it might happen to us. Trauma is evident when we are "never the same" (in a negative way) following an event or an experience. Trauma is evident when we cannot trust others or ourselves, or when we react to situations in the present in a way that is not appropriate to the situation, but that feels a lot like how we felt in a past situation (i.e. being "triggered".)
Trauma therapy has been a special interest of mine and a special focus of much of my ongoing training and education. Trauma therapy involves learning to calm and regulate your internal emotional state and reactions through various techniques that are easy to learn. As you develop your ability to manage your feelings and reactions, trauma therapy helps you to "unload" the experiences of the past. In trauma, the brain is reacting in the present, as if the past is happening again; trauma therapy works with various methods to help you "de-activate" this response in the brain, to make the past a memory that no longer affects you intensely in the present. This usually involves methods of calming the traumatic reactions to the past. Trauma is sometimes referred to as the mind/body reacting to the present (situation or stressor) as if it is the past. Trauma Therapy helps the mind, the brain and the body to perceive the past as "over and done" and therefore to be more able to be in the present, and to deal with the present.