What is emotional and psychological trauma?
Emotional and 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 subjectiveemotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.
A stressful event is most likely to be traumatic if:
It happened unexpectedly.
You were unprepared for it.
You felt powerless to prevent it.
It happened repeatedly.
Someone was intentionally cruel.
It happened in childhood.
Emotional and psychological trauma can be caused by single-blow, one-time events, such as a horrible accident, a natural disaster, or a violent attack. Trauma can also stem from ongoing, relentless stress, such as living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, struggling with cancer or anything that undermines your sense of safety and security – including great disappointment.
Commonly overlooked sources of emotional and psychological trauma
Falls or sports injuries
Surgery (especially in the first 3 years of life)
The sudden death of someone close
An auto accident
The breakup of a significant relationship
A humiliating or deeply disappointing experience
The discovery of a life-threatening illness or disabling condition
A loss of money that safeguarded your security
Adapted from HealingResources.info
Not all potentially traumatic events lead to lasting emotional and psychological damage. Some people rebound quickly from even the most tragic and shocking experiences. Others are devastated by experiences that, on the surface, appear to be less upsetting.
A number of risk factors make people susceptible to emotional and psychological trauma. People are more likely to be traumatized by a stressful experience if they’re already under a heavy stress load or have recently suffered a series of losses.
People are also more likely to be traumatized by a new situation if they’ve been traumatized before – especially if the earlier trauma occurred in childhood.
Childhood trauma increases the risk of future trauma
Traumatic experiences in childhood can have a severe and long-lasting effect. Children who have been traumatized 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:
Following a traumatic event, most people experience a wide range of physical and emotional reactions. These are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL events. The symptoms may last for days, weeks, or even months after the trauma ended.
Emotional symptoms of trauma:
Physical symptoms of trauma:
These symptoms and feelings typically last from a few days to a few months, gradually fading as you process the trauma. 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 an image, sound, or situation that reminds you of the traumatic experience.
Grieving is normal following a traumatic event
Whether or not a traumatic event involves death, survivors must cope with the loss, at least temporarily, of their sense of safety and security. The natural reaction to this loss is grief. Like people who have lost a loved one, trauma survivors go through a grieving process. This process, while inherently painful, is easier if you turn to others for support, take care of yourself, and talk about how you feel.
Trauma and the body
Trauma disrupts the body’s natural equilibrium, freezing you in a state of hyperarousal and fear. In essence, your nervous system gets stuck in overdrive. Successful trauma treatment must address this imbalance and reestablish your physical sense of safety.
You can bring your nervous system back into balance by discharging this pent-up energy in a physical way:
Recovering from a traumatic event takes time, and everyone heals at his or her own pace. But if months have passed and your symptoms aren’t letting up, you may need professional help from a trauma expert.
It’s a good idea to seek professional help 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 things that remind you of the trauma
Emotionally numb and disconnected from others
Using alcohol or drugs to feel better
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is the most severe form of emotional and psychological trauma. Its primary symptoms include intrusive memories or flashbacks, avoiding things that remind you of the traumatic event, and living in a constant state of “red alert”. If you have PTSD, it’s important to see a trauma specialist.
Trauma therapist referral
For help locating a trauma therapist, treatment center, or support group in your area, contact the Sidran Traumatic Stress Institute by email or by phone at (410) 825-8888 ext. 203.
Working through trauma can be scary, painful, and potentially retraumatizing. Because of the risk of retraumatization, this healing work is best done with the help of an experienced trauma specialist.
Finding the right therapist may take some time. 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. Choose a trauma specialist you feel comfortable with. Trust your instincts. If you don’t feel safe, respected, or understood – find another therapist. There should be a sense of trust and warmth between you and your therapist.
After meeting a potential trauma therapist, ask yourself these questions:
Did you feel comfortable discussing your problems with the therapist?
Did you feel like the therapist understood what you were talking about?
Were your concerns taken seriously or were they minimized or dismissed?
Were you treated with compassion and respect?
Do you believe that you could grow to trust the therapist?
In order to heal from psychological and emotional trauma, you must face and resolve the unbearable feelings and memories you’ve long avoided. Otherwise they will return again and again, unbidden and uncontrollable.
Trauma treatment and healing involves:
Processing trauma-related memories and feelings
Discharging pent-up “fight-or-flight” energy
Learning how to regulate strong emotions
Building or rebuilding the ability to trust other people
Trauma therapy treatment approaches
The following therapies are commonly used in the treatment of emotional and psychological trauma:
Somatic experiencing takes advantage of the body’s unique ability to heal itself. The focus of therapy is on bodily sensations, rather than thoughts and memories about the event. By concentrating on what’s happening in your body, you gradually get in touch with trauma-related energy and tension. From there, your natural survival instincts take over, safely releasing this pent-up energy through shaking, crying, and other forms of physical release.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) incorporates elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy with eye movements or other forms of rhythmic, left-right stimulation. In a typical EMDR therapy session, you focus on traumatic memories and associated negative emotions and beliefs while tracking your therapist’s moving finger with your eyes. These back-and-forth eye movements are thought to work by “unfreezing” traumatic memories, allowing you to resolve them.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps you process and evaluate your thoughts and feelings about a trauma. While cognitive-behavioral therapy doesn’t treat the physiological effects of trauma, it can be helpful when used in addition to a body-based therapy such as somatic experiencing or EMDR.
Recovering from emotional and psychological trauma takes time. Give yourself time to heal and to mourn the losses you’ve experienced. Don’t try to force the healing process. Be patient with the pace of recovery. Finally, be prepared for difficult and volatile emotions. Allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling without judgment or guilt.
Staying grounded: A trauma self-help exercise
It is very important to stay ‘grounded.’ If you are feeling disoriented, confused, or upset, you can do the following exercise:
Sit on a chair. Feel your feet on the ground. Press on your thighs. Feel your behind on the seat and your back against the chair.
Look around you and pick six objects that have red or blue. This should allow you to feel in the present, more grounded, and in your body. Notice how your breath gets deeper and calmer.
You may want to go outdoors and find a peaceful place to sit on the grass. As you do, feel how your body can be held and supported by the ground.
Source: Gina Ross and Peter Levine, Emotional First Aid
Trauma prevention and self-help strategies:
- Don’t isolate. Following a trauma, you may want to withdraw from others. But isolation makes things worse. Connecting to others will help you heal, so make an effort to maintain your relationships and avoid spending too much time alone.
- Ask for support. It’s important to talk about your feelings and ask for the help you need. Turn to a trusted family member, friend, counselor, or clergyman. You may also want to join a support group for trauma survivors. Support groups are especially helpful if your personal support network is limited.
- Establish a daily routine. In order to stay grounded after a trauma, it helps to have a structured schedule to follow. Try to stick to a daily routine, with regular times for waking, sleeping, eating, working, and exercise. Make sure to schedule time for relaxing and social activities, too.
- Take care of your health. A healthy body increases your ability to cope with stress. Get plenty of rest, exercise regularly, and eat a well-balanced diet. It’s also important to avoid alcohol and drugs. Alcohol and drug use can worsen your trauma symptoms and exacerbate feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation.