Traumatic events are common,
and most people will experience at least once during their lives.
WHAT IS TRAUMA?
Trauma is the experience of severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening event. Trauma survivors may develop emotional disturbances such as extreme anxiety, anger, sadness, survivor’s guilt, or PTSD. They may experience ongoing problems with sleep or physical pain, encounter turbulence in their personal and professional relationships, and feel a diminished sense of self- worth caused by the overwhelming amount of stress.
Although the initiating event may overpower coping resources available at the time. It is still possible to develop healthy ways of coping with the experience and lessening its effects. Research on trauma identifies several healthy ways of coping. For example: avoiding alcohol and drugs, seeing loved ones regularly, exercising, sleeping, and paying attention to self-care.
DEFINITION OF TRAUMA
While there are no objective criteria to evaluate which events will cause post-trauma symptoms. However, the circumstances typically involve the loss of control, betrayal, abuse of power, helplessness, pain, confusion, and/or loss. The event need not rise to the level of war, natural disaster, nor personal assault to affect a person profoundly and alter their experiences. Traumatic situations that cause post-trauma symptoms vary quite dramatically from person to person. Indeed, it is very subjective and it is important to bear in mind that it is defined more by its response than its trigger.
ACUTE STRESS DISORDER VS. POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER
It is important to note that not every traumatized person develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some people develop some symptoms like those listed above, but they go away after a few weeks. This is called acute stress disorder (ASD).
When the symptoms last more than a month and seriously affect the person’s ability to function, the person may be suffering from PTSD. Some people with PTSD don’t show symptoms for months after the event itself. And some people deal with PTSD symptoms of a traumatic experience for the rest of their life. Symptoms of PTSD can escalate to panic attacks, depression, suicidal thoughts and feelings, drug abuse, feelings of being isolated, and not being able to complete daily tasks.
HOW TO COPE WITH TRAUMA
Traumatic experiences often arouse strong, disturbing feelings that may or may not decrease on their own. In the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, it is common to experience shock or denial. A person may undergo a range of emotional reactions, such as fear, anger, guilt, and shame. Feelings of helplessness and vulnerability are also common. Some may experience flashbacks and other signs of PTSD. Traumatic memories fade naturally with time. Persistence of symptoms is a signal that professional help is needed.
HEALING FROM TRAUMA
Trauma symptoms typically last from a few days to a few months, gradually fading as you process the unsettling event. But even when you’re feeling better, you may be troubled from time to time by painful memories or emotions especially in response to triggers such as an anniversary of the event or something that reminds you of the trauma.
If your psychological trauma symptoms don’t ease up or if they become even worse and you find that you’re unable to move on from the event for a prolonged period of time, you may be experiencing Post – Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While emotional trauma is a normal response to a disturbing event, it becomes PTSD when your nervous system gets “stuck” and you remain in psychological shock, unable to make sense of what happened or process your emotions.
Whether or not a traumatic event involves death, you as a survivor must cope with the loss, at least temporarily, of your sense of safety. The natural reaction to this loss is grief. Like people who have lost a loved one, you need to go through a grieving process. The following tips can help you cope with the sense of grief, heal from the trauma, and move on with your life.
WHEN TO SEEK PROFESSIONAL THERAPY FOR TRAUMA
Recovering from trauma takes time, and everyone heals at their own pace. But if months have passed and your symptoms aren’t letting up, you may need professional help from a trauma expert.
Seek help for trauma if you’re:
- Having trouble functioning at home or work
- Suffering from severe fear, anxiety, or depression
- Unable to form close, satisfying relationships
- Experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks
- Avoiding more and more anything that reminds you of the trauma
- Emotionally numb and disconnected from others
- Using alcohol or drugs to feel better
Working through trauma can be scary, painful, and potentially re-traumatizing, so this healing work is best undertaken with the help of experienced trauma specialists. Finding the right therapist may take some time. However, it’s very important that the therapist you choose has experience treating trauma. But the quality of the relationship with your therapist is equally important. So, choose a trauma specialist you feel comfortable with. If you don’t feel safe, respected, or understood, find another therapist.
TREATMENT FOR TRAUMA
In order to heal from psychological and emotional trauma, you’ll need to resolve the unpleasant feelings and memories you’ve long avoided, discharge pent-up “fight-or-flight” energy, learn to regulate strong emotions, and rebuild your ability to trust other people. A trauma specialist may use a variety of different therapy approaches in your treatment.
Psychodynamic therapy in the treatment of PTSD focuses on improving ego strength and capacity for interpersonal relatedness. In psychodynamic therapy, the emotional conflicts caused by the traumatic event are the focus of treatment, particularly as they relate to the client’s early life experience. While the client is retelling the traumatic event to an empathetic, non-judgmental, and compassionate and calm therapist, which will result in greater self- esteem, more effective thinking strategies, and an increased ability to manage intense emotions successfully, that’s the rationale of psychodynamic therapy.
The somatic experience focuses on bodily sensations, rather than thoughts and memories about the traumatic event. Moreover, by concentrating on what’s happening in your body, you can release pent-up trauma-related energy through shaking, crying, and other forms of physical release.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps you process and evaluate your thoughts and feelings about a trauma.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) incorporates elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy with eye movements or other forms of rhythmic, left-right stimulation that can “unfreeze” traumatic memories.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013) Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, (5th Ed.). Washington. DC: Author.
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- Bryant, R.A. (2016). Acute Stress Disorder: What it is and how to treat it. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
- Horowitz, M. J. (1997). Stress response syndromes (3rd ed.). Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.
- Horowitz, M. J., Marmar, C., Krupnick, J., Wilner, N., Kaltreider, N., & Wallerstein, R. (1997). Personality styles and brief psychotherapy (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books.