Trauma is defined as an emotional response to a distressing event. These situations typically arise without warning and are severe enough to represent a threat to life and safety. Most people will experience some trauma in their lifetime, although the degree to which it affects their life can vary greatly. Examples of past trauma that may follow someone through their lifetime if not addressed include:
- A child losing a parent, or a parent losing a young child
- Serious car accidents
- Physical or sexual violence
- Military combat
Types of Trauma
There are several types of trauma that an individual can experience.
Acute trauma occurs when profound distress is experienced in the aftermath of a one-time event.
Chronic trauma results from repeated or ongoing harmful events, such as bullying or domestic abuse.
Complex trauma manifests after repeated or multiple traumatic occurrences from which there is no perceived potential for escape. Feeling trapped destroys any sense of safety and causes harmful hypervigilance.
Vicarious (or secondary) trauma results from exposure to someone else’s suffering. This type of trauma is common in emergency room staff, first responders, and law enforcement. After some time, compassion fatigue may occur, which causes the individual to resist experiencing emotion for others’ pain.
Effects on Daily Life
The amygdala is the region of the brain responsible for identifying and detecting external threats. When it perceives danger, the amygdala sends an alarm throughout the body, indicating the need to defend itself. The sympathetic nervous system releases adrenaline and stress hormones that stimulate a fight-flight-or-freeze response. Anxiety, shock, fear, and anger are considered normal responses to trauma, but the feelings fade as the situation dissipates. However, some people experience lingering feelings of distress that can impede how they operate in their daily life.
If the situation is long-term, individuals may develop extreme anger, sadness, anxiety, survivor’s guilt, or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). The amygdala then overreacts to minor disturbances, resulting in an overabundance of stress hormones that trigger perpetual defense mode. This constant hypervigilance may cause sleep disruptions, chronic pain, relational issues, and diminishing self-worth.
However, past trauma can have an affirmative effect as well. Positive psychological changes after trauma are possible when individuals acknowledge their struggles and identify more as survivors than victims. These people build resilience, learn practical coping skills, and develop a sense of self-sufficiency. They may forge more long-lasting relationships, find a new spiritual purpose, or cultivate a more meaningful appreciation for life. Because the response can be successfully redirected in this way, seeking treatment is a powerful way to regain control.
Trauma can ruin personal and professional relationships if left untreated. Several treatment options are possible for people suffering from short- or long-term symptoms, including:
Lifestyle changes: The way we care for our bodies has a direct effect on our emotional well-being. Therefore, adopting a healthy diet, exercising regularly, avoiding drugs and alcohol, getting adequate sleep, prioritizing self-care, and cultivating a support structure can help reduce trauma symptoms.
Therapy: People can get stuck in negative emotional cycles that will not allow them to move forward. Therapy treatment and incident-informed care can help with the resilience and coping skills they need to leave suffering in their past.
Cognitive behavioral therapy: This form of treatment is often used to counteract the destructive effects of early childhood trauma, proving especially helpful to youth experiencing PTSD resulting from abuse, violence, or unresolved grief.
Sometimes, people think they have defeated their trauma – but can’t understand why they continue to suffer mood swings, irrational behavior, or relationship issues. Meeting with a mental health coach may be an excellent starting point for regaining control of emotions and establishing a positive outlook on life.
Denise Schonwald is a licensed mental health counselor based in Sarasota, Florida.