We often think of trauma as something that develops after an upsetting, shocking or dangerous event, such as an accident. However, trauma can also arise after living through an ongoing stressful situation, such as a childhood in an unstable or unhappy home.
People develop traumatic injuries when they experience more stress than they can cope with. This means that memories and emotions related to the experience can’t be fully processed and become blocked instead. It can make a person feel as if the disturbing experience is not in the past but is something that they keep having to relive.
Causes of trauma
Many things can cause trauma, from natural disasters to workplace bullying to domestic violence. Some people can also experience it through childbirth, bereavement or medical treatments. Children whose caregivers have addictions or mental health problems can carry the impact of these traumatic experiences into adulthood.
Members of the armed forces, police and paramedics can all be affected by trauma. In fact, anyone in a highly stressful profession where they are at risk of injury — or exposed to the injuries of others — can experience it.
Issues caused by trauma:
Re-experiencing the traumatic event
Reliving a traumatic experience as if it is happening again is known as a ‘flashback’. And while a flashback can be a visual memory, it can also be an emotional one such as being flooded with feelings of fear, anger or grief. Unprocessed trauma can also return in the form on intrusive images or nightmares.
Flashback are often caused by ‘triggers’, which are really just anything that reminds the person of the trauma. A trigger can be many things, including a sight, sound, smell, situation or interaction. Sometimes a person can feel triggered but not know why.
Dissociation is a way of coping with situations that feel emotionally unmanageable through mentally disconnecting or ‘fleeing’. Although this is your mind’s way of protecting itself, it can feel very scary, particularly when you can’t control it.
At one end of the dissociation spectrum is daydreaming or ‘zoning out’, while at the other end is disconnecting from yourself (depersonalisation), or the world around you (derealisation), or memories (amnesia).
Conditions resulting from traumatic experiences:
Adjustment Disorder (also known as Stress Response Syndrome)
This is a short-term set of effects that can happen after a trauma, shock or loss. It can include feelings of stress, sadness or hopelessness, or physical symptoms like headaches. People experiencing adjustment disorder can also socially withdraw.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
This issue can develop when a mind is overwhelmed by a traumatic event, causing the ‘fight or flight’ threat system to stay switched on. This means that the person stays constantly alert to signs of threat (hypervigilance) and might keep reliving the event involuntarily.
Signs of PTSD can include: adjustment disorder (at the beginning), flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, feeling on edge, avoiding reminders of the traumatic event, lack of concentration, irritability, anger, social withdrawal, guilt and physical issues like pain or trembling.
Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD)
This type of trauma develops after a long term, distressing situation that the person can’t escape from. Usually it begins in childhood after abuse, neglect or abandonment from parents or caregivers. Childhood experiences like these are sometimes called developmental or attachment trauma.
These traumas can affect a person’s ability to learn how to manage their emotions, set boundaries, develop a strong sense of self and build healthy relationships in adulthood. Feelings of shame, confusion and isolation are also common in individuals dealing with C-PTSD.
Signs of C-PTSD can include: emotional flashbacks, feelings of emptiness, shame, guilt, anger, lack of concentration, dissociation, risky behaviours, relationship issues, social withdrawal, low mood, anxiety, low self-esteem and physical issues like headaches or fatigue.
‘Personality Disorder’ is a medical diagnosis that describes an ongoing instability in a person’s sense of self, relationships with others and emotions. This can be deeply distressing and isolating for the person experiencing it. Examples of personality disorders include Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Avoidant Personality Disorder.
There is strong evidence to show that people with personality disorders have experienced childhood traumatic experiences, abuse or neglect. Or in some cases, they might have had caregivers who were overly controlling or treated them like an object, rather than a person. And when a child’s need for love, safety, nurturing, guidance and boundaries aren’t met, this can deeply affect how they see themselves and others.
As a result, they might find themselves struggling with intense emotional reactions in adulthood. They might also develop coping mechanisms to deal with these emotions, like alcohol, risky behaviour and self-harm. And they might also find it hard to form long term bonds. However, the right therapy can really make a difference, helping the person to explore the role that trauma has played in their life and learn healthier ways of coping.
Signs of personality disorders can include: longstanding pattern of unstable relationships, mood swings, intense emotions, strong reactions to criticism, low self-esteem, shame, low mood, anxiety, social withdrawal, risky behaviours and impulsivity.
Help with Trauma
These therapies have been shown to be effective with trauma: EMDR, Trauma-Focused CBT, Body-Focused Psychotherapies, Schema Therapy, DBT, CFT, Art Therapy.
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Interested in EMDR therapy — but not sure what’s involved? Read one man’s story of how it changed his life after trauma…