We hear so much about trauma these days. Almost everyone has had some sort of traumatic event in their lives at one time or another. But how do you recognize whether something is traumatic or not?
Trauma is defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as the emotional response someone has after an extremely negative event. The effects can be so debilitating that the trauma sufferer experiences symptoms that interfere with being able to live a normal life.
It’s important to note that how we interpret the event, rather than the event itself, is what determines whether something is a traumatic experience or not.
There are two types of trauma: big “T” and little “t.” Examples of big “T” traumas are the events most commonly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and include rape and sexual violence, injuries, or life-threatening experiences. Examples of little “t” traumas are events such as bullying, emotional abuse, loss of a pet or important relationships. These lists are not all inclusive, but describe the difference between them.
Childhood traumas often have lifelong effects. People exposed to early traumatic experiences often experience more trauma later on. Car accidents, vets returning from war zones, bullying, and workplace mobbing also can be sources of trauma. This list is not comprehensive, but gives an idea of the types of events that can lead to trauma.
We have come to recognize that there are several events that can result in trauma. Events that can lead to trauma are unexpected, leaving the victim unprepared for it and powerless to stop it. Events that happen repeatedly, particularly those that happen in childhood such as sexual abuse or emotional or physical abuse, can lead to trauma. We also know that surgery when we are very young – especially in the first three years – can be traumatic.
Childhood traumas that are unresolved often carry over into adulthood, resulting in severe anxiety and depression in the adult. People who come from homes where the parents were neglectful or violent result in adults with trauma.
Rape, domestic violence, natural disasters, severe illness or injury, witnessing an act of violence, and the death of a loved one will often lead to trauma. Occasionally, we can be traumatized by something that we only observe from a distance. For example, although the events of 9/11 occurred on the east coast of the United States, they impacted millions of us across the country, and even the world. For some of us, it created a fear of death and dying and vulnerability to outside threats. However, not all people who witness or are involved in catastrophic or life threatening events develop PTSD or experience trauma. If they are able to process what has happened and make sense of it, the event may not become a traumatic experience.
When faced with a traumatic event, our bodies go into survival mode by triggering fight, flight, or freeze responses to the event. Eventually, our nervous systems calm down enough for us to begin to make sense of the event. When that doesn’t happen, we may suffer symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, and physical symptoms that mimic panic attacks – pounding heart, shallow breathing, nausea, and the feeling that we may die or are in danger.
After a traumatic experience, some people tend to isolate themselves, or may experience agoraphobia (the fear of leaving home) in order to avoid those places that may trigger upsetting memories. Hyperarousal of the nervous system causes people to feel jumpy and unable to concentrate, or always on the alert for danger. Disrupted sleep, anger and irritability, anxiety and depression are all possible results of unprocessed traumatic experiences. Changes in behavior are often observed in people who have been exposed to traumatic experiences. It is not uncommon for people who have experienced traumatic events to feel suicidal.
If you have experienced any of the following symptoms, you may be responding to a traumatic experience:
- Trouble sleeping, including nightmares
- Anger and irritability for what appears to be no discernible reason
- Anxiety – feeling hypervigilant and being unable to relax
- Numbness – feeling disconnected from others; unable to feel emotions
- Thoughts of suicide
- Intrusive thoughts about the traumatic experience
In the late 1980’s, Francine Shapiro discovered a therapy that she called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR. Through a series of eye movements, she discovered that troubling memories and negative beliefs could be replaced with positive beliefs, and the memories themselves lose their power to disturb. The brain has infinite power to heal itself, and EMDR can help.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms above, or have experienced a traumatic incident, EMDR can help. As a trained EMDR clinician, I am able to help you heal from the inside and help you to live the life you were meant to live.
“Autumnal Resting Place,” courtesy of Stephen Bowler, Flickr Creative Commons; “Clear Water Reflection,” courtesy of Jph1066, Flickr Creative Commons; “Peaceful Place,” courtesy of Bob Duran, Flickr Creative Commons; “Storm,” courtesy of texaus1, Flickr Creative Commons