Have you been traumatised?

We all know what traumatic experiences are, and the vast majority of us have survived at least one traumatic experience in our lives. No one can tell another person what a traumatic experience should look like, or what that person should or should not be feeling or thinking about the experience. The simple fact is that if you are having strong thoughts and/or feelings about an experience, then you have been traumatised to some extent by the experience. If you are not experiencing these thoughts and/or feelings then you may not have been traumatised by the event.

However, if you are not having thoughts and/or feelings about an event that might normally be considered traumatising, you may currently be in shock and may have these thoughts and/or feelings later. If you find that you are not dealing with feelings about this trauma, don’t be alarmed or feel that you have missed something. Your mind is simply waiting for a time when you might be more ready to process it. When it does come up it will tend to feel like it just happened and you will have the opportunity to deal with the issues then. Remember that you don’t have to be a victim, or even a witness, to be traumatised by an event.

What is psychological trauma?

Psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world. Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatised.

Psychological trauma can be caused by single-blow, one-time events, such as a horrible accident, a natural disaster, or a violent attack. However, it can also stem from ongoing, relentless high- or low-grade stress, such as living in a crime-ridden neighbourhood or struggling with cancer or other chronic illness.

A stressful event is most likely to be traumatic if:

  • it happened unexpectedly
  • you were unprepared for it
  • you felt powerless to prevent it, or during it
  • someone was intentionally cruel
  • you have been traumatised before
  • it happened repeatedly
  • it happened in childhood

Symptoms of traumatisation

If you experience one or more of the following in relation to a single stressor or series of stressors, then you may be traumatised:

Emotional symptoms

  • shock, denial or disbelief
  • anxiety and fear
  • withdrawing socially or emotionally from others
  • feelings of detachment
  • concern overburdening others with problems
  • feeling disconnected or numb
  • grief or disorientation
  • minimising the experience
  • attempts to avoid anything associated with trauma
  • emotional numbing or restricted range of feelings
  • difficulty trusting and/or feelings of betrayal
  • confusion and difficulty concentrating
  • hyper-alertness or hypervigilance
  • irritability, restlessness or outbursts of anger
  • emotional swings – like crying and then laughing
  • feeling sad or hopeless
  • worrying or ruminating – intrusive thoughts of the trauma
  • nightmares
  • flashbacks – feeling like the trauma is happening now
  • feelings of helplessness and panic
  • feeling out of control
  • increased need to control everyday experiences
  • feelings of self-blame and/or survivor guilt
  • shame
  • diminished interest in everyday activities or depression
  • unpleasant past memories resurfacing
  • loss of a sense of order or fairness in the world; expectation of doom and fear of the future

Physical symptoms

  • insomnia, hypersomnia or nightmares
  • fatigue
  • sudden sweating and/or heart palpitations (fluttering)
  • decreased or increased appetite
  • easily startled by noises or unexpected touch
  • more susceptible to colds and illnesses
  • difficulty concentrating
  • edginess and agitation
  • Increased muscle tension
  • aches and pains like headaches, backaches, stomach aches
  • decreased interest in sex
  • constipation or diarrhoea
  • increased use of alcohol or drugs and/or overeating

Childhood trauma increases the risk of future trauma

Traumatic experiences in childhood can have a severe and long-lasting effect. Children who have been traumatised see the world as a frightening and dangerous place. When childhood trauma is not resolved, this fundamental sense of fear and helplessness carries over into adulthood, setting the stage for further trauma. Childhood trauma results from anything that disrupts a child’s sense of safety and security, including:

  • an unstable or unsafe environment
  • separation from a parent
  • serious illness
  • intrusive medical procedures
  • sexual, physical, or verbal abuse
  • domestic violence
  • neglect
  • bullying

Do you need professional help?

Professional help is often a good idea if:

  • you are having trouble functioning at home or work
  • it is bringing up old, unresolved traumas
  • you have suffered complex trauma as a child (e.g. ongoing childhood sexual abuse)
  • you are suffering from severe fear, anxiety, or depression
  • you are unable to form close, satisfying relationships
  • you are experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks
  • you are avoiding more and more things that remind you of the trauma
  • you feel emotionally numb and disconnected from others
  • you are using alcohol or drugs to feel better

Of course, some people who undergo traumas make the choice to see a professional at this point not because they are unable to recover from the trauma, or are suffering unusual levels of distress as a result of it, but because they recognise the event as a critical moment that presents them with an opportunity to grow. Trauma (and indeed any life crisis) presents us with information as to how well we are functioning under pressure. Do we have the friends and other social resources to aid us in these times, and do we feel confident and transparent enough to be able to utilise them? Sometimes these events can trigger depressive episodes, old memories, existential crises or chinks in relationships that people choose to address in order to grow in their lives and to evolve more adaptive coping skills.

See also:
Post-traumatic stress disorder

How do I get help for myself or my loved one?

The first step in getting help is finding out whether you have a problem. A trained clinical psychologist can effectively perform a professional assessment, which will identify whether you have any problem areas, and will recommend the treatment most appropriate for you if necessary.

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