Dr. Maria D. Reyes
Pain and suffering are an unavoidable part of the human experience. This pain and suffering, however, may be the direct result of a deeply traumatic experience that results in emotional or psychological trauma in an individual. So how do you know if you’re suffering from trauma or if what you’ve experienced has or is impacting you on a physical, emotional, social, or spiritual level?
Trauma DefinedTrauma is any event or experience that causes physical, emotional, spiritual, social, or psychological harm.
Every person experiences trauma differently and what may be a traumatic experience for one individual might not be for another. Trauma can be a once-off event that you perceive as life-threatening, dangerous, or disturbing. It can also be a series of prolonged events, such as occurs during abuse, domestic violence, or neglect.
There are many different types of trauma, but trauma can be experienced by:
- A hurricane victim who lost her home and experienced paralyzing fear trying to get to safety
- A child who suffered physical or sexual abuse at the hand of an adult
- A spouse following the death of his beloved partner
- A neglected child who did not receive the love, basic care, and support he needed
- A sufferer of a car accident even if no one was injured or harmed
- A kidnapping victim or victim of a crime, such as a break-in or theft
- Community members who experience repeated neighborhood violence
Trauma can be the result of a natural disaster, death, loss, injury, illness, crime or any other set of circumstances experienced by individuals. According to The National Center for PTSD (US Department of Veterans Affairs), trauma is not rare. Approximately 60% of men (6 out of 10) and 50% of women (5 out of 10) experience some form of trauma in their lives.
Trauma can impact the following areas:
- Emotional – Trauma may result in fear, anxiety, pain, guilt, shame and other negative emotions that become difficult to process or release.
- Physical – Trauma can weaken the immune system, disrupt sleep, slow down digestion and your metabolism, impact muscles and joints, and more.
- Psychological – Trauma can affect your thoughts and the ability to make decisions.
- Spiritual – Trauma can change your worldview and the way you interpret life and meaning.
- Social – Trauma can impact any relationship, whether it’s a family member, friend, or work colleague.
What Happens in Your Brain and Body When You Experience Trauma?
A traumatic experience causes your brain to trigger a sensor in your Limbic System called the amygdala. The amygdala begins interpreting the images you’re seeing and sounds you’re hearing and determines whether or not you’re in danger. When it senses you’re in danger, it sends a signal to the hypothalamus which communicates to the rest of your body through your nervous system.
It activates your sympathetic nervous system by sending a signal to your adrenals to pump out epinephrine ( known as adrenaline). This is known as your body’s fight-or-flight response which is the body’s survival mechanism.
When this happens, you’ll often experience rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure, rapid breathing, sweating, and a burst of energy meant to get you out of danger. More oxygen is sent to your brain in order to increase alertness and a number of other changes happen throughout your body, so you’re primed to essentially fight or run.
As epinephrine (or adrenaline) diminishes, the hypothalamus activates your HPA axis which consists of the hypothalamus, adrenals, and pituitary gland. If your brain still perceives a threat, it triggers the release of the hormones CRH and ACTH which then prompt your adrenal gland to release cortisol.
Cortisol keeps your body on high alert until the threat passes and then it subsides. The challenge comes when the stressful situation is still perceived and the body continues to produce cortisol. It’s cortisol that contributes to health problems, including inflammation and weight gain.
In a traumatized brain, cognitive processing and emotional regulation are often weakened and the fear center of the brain (the amygdala) is overstimulated. This is why many individuals who have experienced trauma can find themselves in a constant state of fear.
What Are the Symptoms of Trauma?
If you’ve experienced a once-off or prolonged trauma, you may find that you experience the following symptoms or reactions:
Fear and Anxiety Following a traumatic experience, fear and anxiety are a sign that your nervous system is doing its job. If these emotions do not subside, however, and are prolonged, impacting your daily tasks and ability to function, this is when it becomes a problem.
You might be angry at the person or event that caused your trauma. You may also find yourself snapping at individuals you care about who have nothing to do with your trauma. Anger is a normal response to trauma but needs to be regulated so it does not cause you or others additional harm.
Rather than processing the event and the feelings associated with it, you may find yourself avoiding the person or event and avoiding talking about it altogether. Processing is a necessary part of healing from trauma so try to work through your emotions or find a trusted support person you can talk to.
Flashbacks occur when you remember the event and feel as if you’re experiencing it all over again. These can be troubling and often very emotional.
While a person may dream about the traumatic experience, he or she may also dream about other dangerous events that drum up similar feelings of fear, panic, and anxiety.
A person may be consumed with fear and begin to see the world as an extremely unsafe place. He or she might be oversensitive to danger and hyperaware. Over time, this fear should dissipate as an individual begins to see things other than danger and harm, such as beauty, kindness, and love that are evident in life.
Because an individual might often have nightmares or be afraid to go to sleep, he or she may suffer from sleep disruptions and a lack of concentration or edginess because of this.
Blame, Guilt, or Shame
Following a trauma, an individual might feel guilty. A person may feel like he or she is to blame for the trauma. He or she might ask: why wasn’t I more careful or why did I get involved with him in the first place? This is often normal and should be worked through to redirect those feelings of blame, guilt, or shame.
Sadness is a very normal response to trauma and crying actually involves the parasympathetic nervous system and is one of the body’s ways to calm the body and mind.
Difficulty Trusting Others
If another person is the cause of trauma, a person may find it difficult to trust others again. He or she may become very skeptical and critical. This is where processing the trauma with a counselor and assessing the differences between the person who caused harm and other people who are worthy of trust can be very helpful.
Loss of Interest
Following trauma, an individual may lose interest in social activities, physical intimacy, hobbies, and other activities he or she once enjoyed.
Self-Criticism and Feelings of Inadequacy
An individual may become extremely self-critical and feel inadequate following the trauma. He or she may wonder things like: why am I so impacted by this or why can’t I get over this? Many people think that if they’d done something differently or were just [fill in the blank] this wouldn’t have happened. This is untrue and these thoughts and feelings can be processed and overcome.
Emotional trauma can be challenging to work through on your own without the help of a trusted support system, however, there are many steps you can take at home to cope with trauma:
- Diaphragmatic breathing is a wonderful technique that can help your body and mind relax. It’s used to help move your body out of the fight-or-flight response and involves deep and slow breathing.
- Exercise is a great way to release stress and produce endorphins.
- Reading the Bible and meditating on the Scriptures is a wonderful way to calm your mind and begin retraining your thoughts to dwell not on the danger or terrible experience, but on the hope in Christ.
And of course, therapy is a wonderful tool to help you process and reframe the trauma and modify the associated behaviors. A Christian counselor can help you quiet fear and learn to process and let go of the emotions and effects of your traumatic experience.
Trauma healing is a very important aspect of overcoming trauma and we’re here for you. We hope this insight helps you better understand your trauma. For additional support or to speak with a Christian counselor, please contact us by phone or by visiting the online counselor directory.
“Healing”, Courtesy of Larm Rmah, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Covering her Face”, Courtesy of Dmitry Ratushny, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Hiding”, Courtesy of Ian Keefe, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Watching the Sunset”, Courtesy of David Billings, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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