Life is full of a variety of experiences, some of which are classified as positive and life-giving, and others that could be described as challenging or harmful. Throughout your life, you encounter different people and find yourself in lots of situations, some that you’ve chosen, and others that you didn’t choose and never would choose for yourself.
One way to describe certain negative life experiences is by using the term “trauma.” This word doesn’t describe every negative experience you have, but it describes those that have a particular negative effect on your well-being. Perhaps you’ve experienced trauma, but you didn’t know to call it that. It’s good to understand what trauma is so that you can deal with it appropriately.
What is trauma?
Traumatic events can occur at any age and in any circumstances, and they often cause long-lasting harm that requires intervention through self-care and professional mental health care. Each person reacts differently to trauma, meaning that its aftereffects may manifest immediately, or they may only surface later on.
It can be difficult to define trauma and put it into an airtight category. One reason for this is that what can be considered traumatic is deeply personal. Not only is it true that other people can’t know how you feel about your own experiences, but they don’t even know if those experiences were traumatic for you. You might go through similar circumstances and have similar experiences to someone else but find that you are affected differently by them.
However, there are some broad parameters of what constitutes trauma, and there are certain events that tend to be traumatic for people across different personalities, age groups, and backgrounds. When a person goes through something that is intensely stressful, frightening, or distressing, that is often considered to be trauma.
Used in this sense, trauma refers to the situation or event itself. But it is also used to refer to the way experiencing those events affects a person.
A traumatic event is one where a person is exposed to a situation or a series of events that they experience as emotionally disturbing or life-threatening, and which have lasting and adverse effects on the person’s functioning as well as their mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being.
Trauma typically affects a person because it shatters one’s sense of security, making them feel that they’re helpless in a dangerous and seemingly out-of-control world.
Traumatic experiences often (but do not necessarily) involve a threat to life or safety. It can cause a person to struggle with upsetting emotions, memories, and anxiety that may be hard to overcome. Trauma can also leave one feeling numb, disconnected, and unable to trust other people. Trauma can vary in intensity or duration, and it can be psychological or emotional.
Trauma can include events where a person feels frightened, humiliated, rejected, under threat, unsafe, unsupported, trapped, ashamed, powerless, abandoned, or invalidated. There are three broad types of trauma:
- Acute trauma, stemming from a single intense, stressful, or dangerous experience.
- Chronic trauma, which stems from prolonged and repeated exposure to stressful events such as bullying, child abuse, or domestic violence.
- Complex trauma, which results from exposure to multiple traumatic events.
While trauma can occur at any age, its long-term effects on children’s developing brains can be particularly debilitating. Exposure to these adverse childhood experiences is unfortunately common across all sectors of society.
Whatever kind of trauma you or a loved one go through, and whether it has had a primarily psychological or emotional effect on you, if you find that it’s affecting daily functioning and peace of mind, it’s important to seek help as soon as possible to process that trauma.
Different examples of traumatic events.
The kinds of events that a person finds traumatic will differ from person to person. Some research estimates that around 60-75% of people in North America experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives. Trauma can happen in various ways, including being directly harmed, witnessing harm to someone else, or living in a traumatic environment such as in a particular family or community.
Experiences that may be traumatic include the following:0
- Physical, psychological, emotional, or sexual abuse.
- Sexual assault.
- A traffic collision.
- Going through a life-threatening illness, or seeing a loved one go through it.
- The sudden loss of a loved one.
- Sudden, unexplained separation from a loved one.
- Being attacked.
- Being kidnapped.
- Acts of terrorism.
- Natural disasters.
- Violence in your community.
- Childhood neglect.
- Living with a family member with mental health or substance use disorders.
- Experiencing racism, discrimination, and oppression.
Signs you’ve had a traumatic experience.
It may not always be obvious that you’ve gone through a traumatic experience. Sometimes, people dismiss their experiences, but later find themselves struggling with symptoms of trauma. It’s important to recognize that not everyone who experiences a stressful event will develop trauma.
Some people can cope better than others or aren’t overwhelmed easily. There are also various types of trauma, and some people develop symptoms that resolve themselves after a few weeks, while others experience more long-term effects.
Some people affected by trauma develop coping mechanisms to help alleviate the emotional and/or physical pain they feel because of trauma. These strategies or coping mechanisms at times will involve maladaptive behaviors such as unhealthy eating or substance use and abuse. While these coping mechanisms provide some relief, they can also create problems by contributing to anxiety, social isolation, and chronic diseases.
Trauma can lead to a range of emotions both immediately after the event and long afterwards. One may feel overwhelmed, helpless, shocked, numb, or have difficulty processing their experience. The symptoms of trauma range from mild to severe, and they include emotional and psychological responses such as:
- Difficulty concentrating.
One may also feel jumpy and become hyperaware of their surroundings, have emotional outbursts, withdraw from others, or have flashbacks or nightmares where they relive the traumatic event in their mind. It’s important to see a mental health professional or doctor for an appropriate diagnosis.
Help to overcome a traumatic experience.
What should you do if you or your loved one have had a traumatic experience? Firstly, you must speak with someone like a mental health professional or your primary care physician so that you can receive appropriate medical treatment. With treatment, you can address the root cause of the trauma and find constructive ways to manage your symptoms.
Some of the treatment options available include therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), or somatic therapies that help the mind and body process trauma. These therapies can help people who’ve experienced trauma to cope with their symptoms and improve their quality of life.
Medication can also help to address symptoms of trauma as well as co-occurring conditions such as anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances. You should talk to your doctor about your options and what will work best for you. In addition to therapy and medication, self-care is another vital component of addressing trauma. This includes:
- Getting exercise, which relieves stress and leaves you feeling good.
- Mindfulness, which grounds you in the here and now so you don’t keep reliving the traumatic event.
- Remaining connected to your support network to improve your mood and sense of well-being. This can be your trusted friends and family, or a support group of other people who have also experienced trauma.
- Maintaining a balanced lifestyle that emphasizes getting quality sleep, eating healthy food, and avoiding drugs and alcohol.
If you or a loved one experiences persistent or severe symptoms of trauma, you should seek help from a mental health professional such as a Christian trauma counselor, especially if the symptoms of trauma interfere with daily functioning or relationships with others. Reach out to a Christian counselor who specializes in addressing trauma so that you can begin your journey toward healing and wholeness.
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