What exactly is trauma? A lot of times we are taught that “trauma” is the label deserved when something “traumatic” happens to an individual, and that’s it. We think of traumatic events as personal exposure to fires, natural disasters, wars, and even physical or sexual abuse. It is easy to classify traumatic events in extreme cases such as these, but it’s important to remember that someone’s experience of trauma is not just limited to these or any other extreme incidents.
While these events may lead to the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and are what we might call “Capital ‘T’ Trauma”, how we have come to understand trauma in the current mental health practice is inclusive of less severe, and yet truly impactful experiences on a small scale (“Little ‘t’ trauma”).
Merrium Webster defines trauma in general as “a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury.” However, this is just a complicated way of stating that trauma is anything that causes an emotional or mental disturbance to an individual. This may include breakups, any type of neglect, abrupt losses, or even displacements, such as a move to a new school.
Since trauma encomposses a wide range of events, traumatic events are not necessarily black and white. What may be traumatic to one individual does not necessarily mean it is traumatic to another individual. Trauma is defined more in the life of the individual than anything. This is because even though people may go through the same or similar situation, their emotional response to those situations may not be the same.
The same effect can be seen a lot in siblings who have divorced parents. Sometimes one child may be more affected by the divorce than the other child. Their experience of their parents’ divorce is different, meaning that they may not share the same emotional disturbance.
Physical symptoms of trauma:
- Insomnia or nightmares
- Hypervigilance (being startled easily, more reactive)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Racing heartbeat
- Edginess and agitation
- Aches and pains
- Muscle tension
Emotional & psychological symptoms:
- Shock, denial, or disbelief
- Confusion, difficulty concentrating
- Anger, irritability, mood swings
- Anxiety and fear
- Guilt, shame, self-judgement
- Feeling depressed or hopeless
- Feeling numb or outside of yourself
There are three main categories of trauma:
Single incident trauma.
Single incident traumas are one time traumatic events. An example of this would be a car accident, an injury, or going through a natural disaster.
This type consists of any stress that is ongoing such as fighting through a chronic illness, bullying, or domestic violence. Also related to this type of trauma, is the idea that historical and cultural trauma may be passed down generationally, whether through direct communication about what was experienced, or through other indirect means.
This last category relates more toward trauma within interpersonal experiences that we tend not to give too much importance to as trauma. This may include difficult breakups, sudden death of a loved one, or even humiliating and shameful experiences.
It is important also to note that there exists secondary trauma as well. One does not have to be directly involved with the incident to be affected, as a simple exposure to the event through someone else’s retelling is enough to make it traumatic, as is if you are the first responder on the scene of an accident. When it is chronic or severe enough, even this secondary exposure can contribute to symptoms enough to warrant a PTSD diagnosis.
This particular type of exposure may be in the form of social media, news outlets, or word of mouth. An example of this would be how mass shootings or terrorist attacks affect the masses and not just the individuals who endured the event.
Healing from Trauma
Left unaddressed, trauma has a way of sneaking up on individuals and causing difficulties, for themselves, their relationship and their family. Especially for those who went through traumatic experiences in childhood, the correlation between trauma and substance abuse is well documented. What this truly shows is that the individual has ineffective coping strategies in dealing with the stresses that life sends their way. These are skills that can be taught and learned within the context of a therapeutic relationship, and it is within that system of support that individuals may be able to open up, talk about their experiences, and begin to heal.
Overall, the subject of trauma is vast and wide and does not fit into a perfect cookie cutter label. Trauma is highly subjective and affects individuals in many ways. What may be traumatic to one individual may not be to another, and that is perfectly okay. We all have our different experiences, the important part is knowing that we are not alone and that we can reach out for help when needed. If you are ready to take steps towards healing from the traumas in your life, whether big “T” or little “t”, reach out to us online at Pure Health Center today to make an appointment.