What is Trauma? How Do You Heal from It?
Published By Justin Baksh, LMHC, MCAP
July 8, 2023
Trauma, triggers, and shock… these are all words we are familiar with, words we hear all the time. No one can escape traumatic events, no one is exempt from painful memories or fright-filled encounters, and, unfortunately, traumatic experiences often lead to a negative emotional response.
What is Trauma?
Trauma can be emotional, physical, and, many times, both.
In the mental health arena, trauma represents the emotional fallout from an event experienced as traumatic. It is unique to the individual: What is traumatic for one person may not be for another. Trauma can even be a repercussion of isolation.
Perhaps a person was involved in a car accident or an assault, perhaps they have seen things in war, or had negative childhood experiences involving abuse or neglect. These events can be shocking, overwhelming and, at times, hard to manage.
Some traumatic events are prolonged, such as repeated sexual abuse, domestic violence, or caring for someone who is very ill or dying, or a one-time event. In today’s world, we all have witnessed traumatic events to some capacity. Natural disasters, terrorist attacks, school shootings, and the COVID-19 pandemic are all examples of traumatic experiences we have observed, experienced, and shared as a nation.
Again, trauma is individual. Different people experiencing the same event will respond differently. Some may display resiliency, bouncing back quickly to a stable state of mind. Others may go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some may fall in between those two, having only a brief episode of anxiety, depression, or other symptoms associated with PTSD.
“The impact of trauma can be subtle, insidious, or outright destructive. How an event affects an individual depends on many factors, including characteristics of the individual, the type and characteristics of the event(s), developmental processes, the meaning of the trauma, and sociocultural factors.”
National Library of Medicine
Symptoms of Trauma
Trauma responses can be both physical and psychological. They are, in fact, defense mechanisms arising from the traumatic experience. Often these situations cause fear, anxiety, and panic, they make the person feel as if they are not safe or protected.
Just as there is great variability in how individuals experience traumatic events, so there is also a lot of variation in how symptoms manifest (and their severity).
- Anxiety & Fear
- Decrease in Concentration
- Gastrointestinal Problems
- Guilt, Shame & Self-Blame
- Feelings of Hopelessness & Sadness
- Inconsistent Sleep Patterns
- Intrusive Thoughts
- Mood Swings
- Panic Attacks
- Rapid Heart Rate
- Respiratory Issues
- Sleep Disturbances
- Weight Gain or Loss
- Withdrawing from Others
There truly are so many symptoms of trauma. Aside from the above, victims of trauma may inflict harm on themselves or develop a substance abuse problem.
Cognitive-Based Trauma Issues
Experiencing a traumatic event can lead to cognitive decline, affecting the processing of thoughts and feelings. Individuals that have suffered through traumatic events may combat cognitive errors, intrusive thoughts, hallucinations, idealization, and guilt.
For example, perceptions of an event may be misinterpreted due to a prior experience. This can happen if the event resembles the trauma in any way.
Excessive and inappropriate guilt can also occur when a traumatic experience ends in a loss in life or severe injury. Commonly called “survivor’s guilt,” those who went through a traumatic, life-or-death situation can feel guilty simply for surviving when others didn’t. In fact, survivors of these situations may feel responsible in some way, that if they could have done something differently, there would have a different outcome (this is also called hindsight bias). They assume the responsibility for the event, along with the guilt associated with it. Cognitively, this happens because the person is trying to make sense of or regain control of a senseless situation.
Intrusive thoughts and memories may pop in unexpectedly. They can be flooding, and hard to emotionally regulate in the moment. Due to the nature of these thoughts and how rapidly they enter the brain, the person suffering may feel as if they are experiencing the trauma all over again in the present moment.
Hallucinations are a break with reality in which things can be heard, seen, felt, smelled or tasted that do not exist. They have long been thought to be a re-experiencing of the trauma on some level. It has also been suggested that these hallucinations somehow serve as a coping mechanism. Nonetheless, they (thankfully) tend to subside within approximately six months.
Frequently Asked Questions About Trauma
What are triggers?
A person that has endured a traumatic event may find that there are triggers in their life that reactivate their feelings and emotions related to the trauma. These are stimulants that at times an individual can be unprepared for. Through therapy and help from a medical professional, victims of trauma may be able to recognize triggers and learn tools to move through those moments. A trigger can be almost anything, but is most often sensory related, such as a sound, smell, or physical sensation.
What are flashbacks?
Flashbacks can be overwhelming, invasive, and reoccurring. They may be set off by a trigger, but sometimes can occur out of nowhere. The person can have a sensory reaction to this and may feel that in that moment the event is happening all over again to them. Repercussions of a flashback may come on immediately but sometimes have a lasting effect, causing confusion and or disorientation. Flashbacks tend to occur under high levels of stress.
Are there long-lasting effects of trauma?
The effects of trauma can indeed be long-lasting. At times these experiences can lead to more austere outcomes. Individuals may turn to substance abuse use; this often happens to cover the pain they have experienced and aid in dissociating from the trauma. Others may engage in self harm, this occurs to feel a sense of control, to experience physical pain because they have become numb to the outside world and their lives. Depression and anxiety often arise following a traumatic experience. For some this may be acute, for others long lasting. In more severe cases of trauma, individuals may develop obsessive compulsive reactions (OCD), as well has posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
How to Heal from Trauma
“Trauma survivors need to feel safe in order to heal; they need to feel some sense of control over their lives now; and they do not need to feel small or less than others or ashamed.”
Janina Fisher, PhD
Healing from trauma can be a grueling experience, but surely worth it. Trauma therapy is typically tailored to the individual. A treatment plan will be formulated to address the needs of each client. For example, co-occurring mental health conditions will need to diagnosed and managed while dealing with healing past trauma.
Certain therapies involve recalling the traumatic event in detail to aid in the healing process while others do not. Flashbacks, triggers, memories, and anxieties will also be considered, and tools will be provided to cope. Medications may also be prescribed to help alleviate the symptoms of trauma and any accompanying anxiety or depression.
Because trauma can change the structure of the brain, neurofeedback is a non-invasive, non-medical treatment shows a lot of promise for PTSD patients. One thing that makes it popular is that there is no need to recall the traumatic event. There are no systemic side effects from medication. The therapy simply retrains the brain to function more optimally.
The treatment plan for trauma, and all its components, are obviously important. The therapist/client relationship, however, is critical to success. Above all, the therapist must create a safe environment for the client in which to share in confidence and receive the help needed to navigate the journey to true healing.
- Geddes, G., Ehlers, A., & Freeman, D. (2016, December 30). Hallucinations in the months after a trauma: An investigation of the role of cognitive processing of a physical assault in the occurrence of hallucinatory experiences. Psychiatry research. Retrieved July 12, 2022, from National Institutes of Health
- Mann, K., & Marwaha, R. (2022, February 7). Posttraumatic stress disorder – statpearls – NCBI bookshelf. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved July 12, 2022, from National Institutes of Health
- SAMHSA. (2014). Understanding the impact of trauma – NCBI bookshelf. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved July 12, 2022, from National Institutes of Health
- Steel, C. (1AD, January 1). Hallucinations as a trauma-based memory: Implications for psychological interventions. Frontiers. Retrieved July 12, 2022, from Frontiers