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Home arrow Health arrow Mental Health arrow Dealing With Trauma: How to Recognize and Treat It

Dealing With Trauma: How to Recognize and Treat It

HR_author_photo_Edna
Written by Edna Skopljak, MD
Dr. Donika Vata
Fact checked by Donika Vata, MD
Last update: October 15, 2023
9 min read 699 Views 0 Comments
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If you’ve had a traumatic experience, it can be difficult reaching out for the help that you need. But what causes trauma, and how can the symptoms be treated effectively?

trauma

Some of those who go through stressful, scary, or life-threatening events have short-term signs of anxiety that disappear after a few weeks. However, for many others, these symptoms persist for weeks or months after the event, which develop as a result of trauma. 

Despite this, there are a variety of treatment options that help sufferers identify, address, and manage these symptoms so that they can lead a happy and fulfilling life.

Keep reading to find out what trauma is, how to recognize the signs in yourself and others, and how it can be overcome.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is an emotional response to a frightening, distressing, or stressful event that a person has gone through. Traumatic events may be sudden, often unpredictable, and can cause you to feel unsafe.

Having a traumatic experience can put you at a greater risk of developing mental health issues. This is because they can leave you feeling paranoid that you are constantly in danger and that something catastrophic could happen at any time when you are off guard.

For example, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that develops as a result of trauma.

Witnessing or being part of a traumatic event activates the amygdala, a part of the brain that detects threats and prepares the body for defense. This causes the body to release stress hormones such as adrenaline, which protects you by triggering your fight-or flight-response.

As a result, you may begin to experience anxiety, fear, shock, or aggression.

Types of Trauma 

Psychological trauma can arise as a result of many scenarios, meaning that there are a few main types. These are:

#1 Acute trauma 

Acute trauma occurs immediately after a one-time traumatic event. A person’s reaction to this type of trauma usually only lasts for a short time and can be caused by experiences such as assault, a car crash, or the sudden death of a friend or family member.

#2 Chronic trauma 

Chronic trauma is caused by prolonged traumatic experiences which may last for years at a time. This can therefore develop as a result of domestic violence, continued abuse, or persistent bullying, for example.

#3 Complex trauma 

Those who feel trapped or unsafe are likely to be suffering from complex trauma. This is caused by experiencing multiple traumatic events from which a person can’t escape, such as childhood abuse or neglect, ongoing domestic violence, witnessing repeated abuse, or kidnapping.

Complex trauma can lead to sufferers constantly monitoring their environment for threats, which leaves them feeling exhausted.

#4 Vicarious trauma 

Also known as secondary trauma, this arises after encountering other people’s suffering, such as witnessing an accident or responding to a large-scale traumatic event where others are injured. The people most susceptible to complex trauma are, therefore, doctors, first responders, and those involved in law enforcement.

#5 Adverse childhood experiences 

Referred to as ACEs, adverse childhood experiences are events that cause a person trauma at a young age, which can include physical, emotional, and sexual abuse or neglect. Children may face or witness these traumatic events before they’ve been able to build effective coping skills.

Research highlights the link between ACEs and the development of both physical and mental health problems later on in life, including coronary heart disease, diabetes, depression, and PTSD.

#6 Racial trauma

Racial trauma describes the impact that being discriminated against due to your race can have on how you feel, think, and behave. Even if not experienced personally, it can have an indirect traumatic impact on you. 

For instance, you may be affected by historical trauma, how your racial group has been oppressed over time, or intergenerational trauma, where racial trauma is passed down through family generations.

What Is a Traumatic Experience?

Traumatic events are personal to the individual, meaning something that doesn’t cause trauma for one person may cause trauma for another. 

During a traumatic event, you may feel frightened, trapped, powerless, ashamed, or humiliated. Some of the most common experiences that can cause physical and psychological trauma include:

  • Witnessing an accident or attack
  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Being bullied, harassed, or discriminated against
  • Living in a traumatic atmosphere 
  • Being part of family or community trauma
  • Military combat or natural disaster
  • Losing a parent or loved one during childhood
  • Having a life-threatening illness

What Are the Symptoms of Trauma? 

Knowing how to recognize the signs of trauma in yourself or a loved one is vital for getting the help needed. Here are some of the signs and symptoms of trauma to look out for in yourself and others:

Emotional and psychological signs 

Those who have gone through a traumatic event may experience a range of feelings, including:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Shame
  • Confusion
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Sadness 
  • Guilt
  • Irritability
  • Numbness

Physical symptoms

Trauma can also manifest itself physically, with feelings such as:

  • Racing heart
  • Insomnia and fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Hot sweats
  • Headaches
  • Digestive symptoms
  • Hyperarousal, or constant state of alertness
  • Flashbacks

When should you seek help for trauma? 

Even if your symptoms are mild, it’s important to seek help for trauma as soon as possible to prevent them from getting worse. If you or a loved one are experiencing persistent trauma symptoms that are interfering with your relationships or daily life, you should consult a mental health professional right away.

What Are the Effects of Trauma? 

Whereas some people react immediately, others have more delayed responses to trauma, so you may notice some of the following effects at different times:

#1 PTSD 

Those suffering from long-term trauma are more likely to develop mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This can cause you to feel shocked, scared, or helpless in the weeks and months following a stressful event and has effects including anxiety, insomnia, and flashbacks.

#2 Disrupted sleep 

It’s common for those who have experienced trauma to struggle to fall or stay asleep. This happens as trauma causes the body to be on constant alert, with levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline becoming sky-high. 

You may feel anxious when it comes to bedtime or afraid of having nightmares related to your trauma. 

#3 Panic attacks 

Panic attacks occur after traumatic events as a fear response to stress or danger. They can manifest in several different ways, including a racing heartbeat, becoming faint or nauseous, sweating, or feeling disconnected.

#4 Low self-esteem 

Psychological trauma often has an impact on people’s perceptions of themselves, causing them to have negative opinions and beliefs. For instance, they may feel that they don’t deserve love and therefore isolate themselves from others.

#5 Self-harm 

Those suffering from trauma sometimes use self-harm as a coping method. This is a common type of self-destructive behavior, particularly for those who may have been physically hurt during their traumatic experience and therefore inflict pain on the parts of the body that were attacked at the time.

#6 Alcohol and substance misuse 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), those with a substance use disorder (SUD) are more likely to have histories of trauma.

This is because using drugs or alcohol to mask painful memories and emotions is a common coping mechanism. Research also shows a strong link between childhood trauma and SUDs.

#7 Physical health problems 

Studies indicate that people who have experienced trauma are more vulnerable to developing physical health problems, including heart attack, diabetes, stroke, cancer, and autoimmune diseases. This may be because they were physically harmed during the event or simply their body’s way of coping with the emotional pain.

How Can You Treat Trauma? 

There are a variety of methods used to treat trauma, and it can take some time to find the right one for each individual’s specific needs. 

These treatments may be used alone or in combination with others and include:

#1 Therapy

Talking therapies are a useful treatment method for trauma as they can help people come to terms with their traumatic experiences. They also provide patients with a safe space to discuss difficult feelings, which prevents them from trauma dumping on others.

Some popular types of talking therapy for trauma include:

  • Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – Specifically adapted for the treatment of PTSD, this type of therapy aims to change unhelpful thinking patterns and behaviors. It instead teaches patients new ways of coping with their problems.
  • Cognitive analytic therapy (CAT) – Typically used to treat personality disorders, CAT focuses on how life experiences and relationships can impact how we think, feel, and treat ourselves and others.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) – Combines talking therapy with side-to-side eye movements to reduce the emotions related to traumatic memories.
  • Schema therapy – This combines elements of several therapies to uncover unhelpful patterns that are developed as a result of leaving your emotional needs unmet.

For those who aren’t yet ready to talk about their trauma, creative therapies are another option. 

Conducted with the support of trained professionals in a therapeutic environment, they use art, drama, or music as an alternative way of dealing with painful emotions.

#2 Medications

Medication can help to manage the symptoms of mental health problems linked to trauma, such as PTSD, anxiety, and depression. The type of medication that you will be offered is dependent on the specific symptoms you’re suffering from.

For instance, some people may undergo psychotherapy under the influence of psychoactive drugs such as MDMA or ketamine, which have both been found to be effective in speeding up recovery when administered before talking therapy. 

Those suffering from anxiety or depression as a result of trauma may be prescribed a type of antidepressant known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These drugs, which include sertraline and paroxetine, help to balance brain chemicals and reduce the effects of trauma.

Other drugs that may be useful in treating trauma include nootropics, which can help to reduce anxiety and improve your sleeping pattern.

#3 Building a support system

When you’ve gone through a traumatic experience, it can be difficult to open up and share what has happened. You may also have blurred memories of the event, which makes it difficult to explain your feelings.

However, communicating with other trauma survivors at peer support groups can be helpful, as you don’t need to be able to describe the event to get help. Alternatively, speak to a doctor who can refer you to a mental health specialist.

#4 Self-care activities

Taking care of yourself physically is crucial to helping you feel better mentally. For instance, eating healthy foods regularly helps to maintain your blood sugar levels, which keeps your energy levels and mood more stable.

Completing exercise, such as running regularly, cycling, or even just walking, is helpful as it releases endorphins. These chemicals, including dopamine and serotonin, are responsible for helping you to feel good. Regular movement also prevents obesity, which has been linked to an increased risk of depression

Another great self-care activity is meditation, a form of mindfulness that reduces the production of stress hormones. It does this by stopping the body’s “fight or flight” response, which often occurs as a result of being in a dangerous or traumatic situation. 

Journaling, or expressive writing, may also be useful in coping with the symptoms of PTSD by restoring focus, reducing body tension, and calming anxiety or anger.

FAQs 

Is trauma a mental illness?

Experiencing trauma can cause mental illness, but it isn’t an illness on its own. However, there are conditions that develop as a result of trauma, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

What does trauma feel like?

Everyone reacts to trauma differently, but it can cause you to feel either overwhelmed with emotion or numb. You may, therefore, experience anxiety, depression, fear, confusion, or detachment.

What are the 5 signs of trauma?

The 5 signs of PTSD are avoidance, intrusive memories, arousal symptoms (changes in reactions), negative thoughts, and exposure to a traumatic event.

A Word From a MD

It’s important to remember that everyone has their own response to trauma, so don’t worry if your symptoms or reactions are different from another person who has experienced a similar traumatic event.

It can take time to find the right way of coping with trauma, but there are a variety of things that you can do to help with what’s happening right now.

For example, you could confide in someone that you trust or visit a peer support group. Another useful approach is sensory grounding, which can pull you away from flashbacks or challenging emotions. Try the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, which involves listing 5 things you can hear, 4 you can see, 3 you can touch, 2 you can smell, and 1 you can taste.

It’s especially important to look after your physical health if you are experiencing symptoms of trauma, as this can have a huge impact on your mental health too. Try to incorporate healthy habits into your life, including exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, and getting plenty of sleep.

If you feel that you or a loved one are at risk of immediate danger or harm, you should seek medical help as soon as possible. Speak to a doctor or psychotherapist for advice on the best treatment for you.

Conclusion

Although most people will go through a traumatic experience at some point, not everyone will develop trauma. Long-term trauma can cause PTSD, which may lead to flashbacks, trouble sleeping, and physical sensations such as nausea or sweating.

Talking therapies like CBT are the most common treatment for trauma, but they can be supported by other methods such as medication, building a support system, and taking good care of yourself.

If you are concerned that you or someone you know may be suffering from the effects of trauma, you should consult a doctor or mental health professional straight away.

Written by Edna Skopljak, MD
Edna Skopljak, MD, is a medical advisor for the Health Reporter, a general practitioner who also worked as a medical doctor at the Department of Orthopedic Surgery and Traumatology. In addition to clinical work, she has years of experience in medical research as an editor at a prestigious medical journal.
The article was fact checked by Donika Vata, MD
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HR_author_photo_Edna
Written by Edna Skopljak, MD
Dr. Donika Vata
Fact checked by Donika Vata, MD
Last update: October 15, 2023
9 min read 699 Views 0 Comments
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