What You Need To Know About Trauma

What is trauma? Few people go through life without experiencing it somehow. Trauma is a person’s emotional response to a distressing experience. Unlike ordinary everyday hardships, traumatic events are typically very sudden, unpredictable, or pose a serious threat to someone’s life, and feel beyond a person’s control.

Events that are traumatic to the degree they undermine someone’s sense of safety and security and create hypervigilance that catastrophe may strike at any time. The most common traumatic events tend to be parental loss during childhood, auto accidents, domestic abuse, sexual assault, military experiences, or an unexpected loss of a loved one. However, trauma can affect anyone from all walks of life.

Types of Trauma

A traumatized person can feel a wide range of emotions immediately after a traumatic event, or sometimes years later. There are generally feelings of being overwhelmed, helpless, shocked, or having difficulty processing experience.

Aside from affecting one’s mind and emotions, trauma also can present itself in physical forms. If long-term trauma affects a person’s everyday well-being, it can indicate the trauma has developed into a chronic mental health disorder called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

There are several types of trauma, including:

  • Acute trauma: Acute trauma reflects intense distress immediately after a one-time event, and the reaction is a shorter duration. 
  • Chronic trauma: Chronic trauma can arise from repeated or prolonged harmful events.
  • Complex trauma: Complex trauma is caused by experiencing repeated or multiple traumatic events happening to which there is no possibility of escape. The sense of being trapped is the feature of said experience. Like other types of trauma, it undermines a sense of safety in the world and causes hypervigilance and constant exhausting monitoring of possible threats in their surrounding environment.
  • Secondary or vicarious trauma: This trauma happens from exposure to other people’s suffering and strikes those in professions called to suffering and mayhem. Physicians, first responders, and law enforcement are at risk of compassion fatigue, where they eventually avoid investing emotional attachments to others in an attempt to protect themselves from experiencing further distress.
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE): ACE covers a wide range of difficult situations where children have either directly faced or witnessed emotional, physical, or sexual abuse while growing up before effectively developing coping skills. ACEs disrupt the normal course of development and can last long into adulthood.

Symptoms of Trauma

Symptoms of trauma can range from mild to severe. Many factors that determine how a traumatic event can affect someone such as their characteristics, the presence of other existing mental health conditions, previous exposure to similar traumatic events, the type and characteristics of the event, and their background in handling their emotions.

There are emotional and psychological responses to trauma, and a person who experiences trauma may feel:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Sadness
  • Shame
  • Confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Guilt
  • Numbness
  • Irritability
  • Hopelessness
  • Difficulties concentration

It may be difficult for someone who has experienced trauma to cope with their feelings, causing them to be more withdrawn from others. Emotional outbursts are common, as well as flashbacks where they relive the traumatic event in their mind, and one may suffer from nightmares.

Physical responses are common, along with emotional reactions to trauma. Physical responses include:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Digestive issues
  • Racing heart
  • Sweaty
  • Feeling on edge
  • Hyperarousal

“Normal Trauma” vs. PTSD

Reading through symptoms that commonly occur during a traumatic event, you may notice they are also symptoms of PTSD. Having these symptoms does not mean you suffer from PTSD, and although the symptoms may be distressing, they are usually much less severe than symptoms of PTSD.

PTSD cannot be diagnosed until at least a month following the traumatic event because many PTSD-like symptoms are part of the body’s natural response. For many people, these symptoms gradually fade over time.

Treatment for Trauma

Some individuals may develop other mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse issues. If you or someone you know is struggling with any of these symptoms, it’s advised to seek help and guidance before these symptoms worsen over time. A therapist can provide support and help you understand your trauma and symptoms better.

Trauma treatment depends on the symptoms you experience. Psychotherapy, medication, self-care, or a combination of all three are approaches to treatment for trauma. Treatment focuses on helping individuals integrate their emotional responses to the trauma and address any mental health conditions.

Seeking healthy coping strategies with help from a support group, therapist, or friends and family can help you process and cope with your trauma. It may also be helpful to establish a routine. Traumatic events feel disruptive to one’s life, so having a set schedule can help bring security and predictability back to everyday life.

Seeking Treatment and Therapy

Understanding and re-evaluating traumatic experiences with a trusted mental health professional can help move through trauma, and regain control over thoughts and feelings related to trauma.

Stanley Wipfli is a licensed trauma-based therapist located in downtown San Francisco, specializing in anxiety, depression, and PTSD therapy. Stanley is trained in evidence-based therapy methods and uses extensive experience and knowledge to provide the highest quality of care. 

With therapy, it’s possible to discover a life to thrive in beyond your trauma.

You don’t have to suffer when help is available. Contact Stanley Wipfli today for a free 15-minute consultation. In-person therapy is available in downtown San Francisco, as well as virtual therapy sessions for all California residents.