If you’ve lived through a terrible event and feel unable to move past it, you’ve likely asked yourself “what is trauma, and do I have it?” While no online quiz can tell you for certain, there are some signs that trauma has impacted your life. A medical or mental health professional can help you determine the extent of the trauma and what to do if PTSD is present.
Here’s what you need to know about trauma and its aftermath.
What is trauma?
Trauma is defined by the American Psychological Association as a person’s response to a terrible event. While many people live through disastrous or harmful events, for some, the effects linger. Someone with trauma will continue to be impacted by the single or repeated event for months or years after the threat is present.
Negative effects of trauma that do not pass with time are often diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. PTSD is a mental health condition outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. PTSD interferes with daily functioning and is manifested by the following four categories of symptoms.
- Intrusive memories (flashbacks and emotional distress)
- Avoiding potential triggers to reminders about the event
- Negative thinking (hopelessness, decreased interest in previously enjoyable activities)
- Changes in reactions (hypervigilance)
If you’ve lived through a terrible event that has stuck with you and caused distress in your daily life, you may be facing PTSD.
Types of trauma
There are dozens if not hundreds of potential events that can trigger a trauma response. Here are the types of trauma you may have heard about or encountered yourself.
- Living through a natural disaster
- Physical assault
- Sexual assault
- Emotional abuse
- Witnessing a shooting, stabbing or murder
- The sudden death of a loved one
- Hospitalization in childhood
- Serious medical events
- Separation from parents, siblings or caregivers
- Gang violence
- A car accident
- Witnessing an accident, death or injury
- Being attacked by an animal
- Seeing death or dead bodies (for example, through working at a hospital)
- Combat experiences
- Living through a housefire
- Being a victim of torture
While we all may understand the gravity of a terrible event, only those who have experienced trauma or PTSD, as a result, will understand the intensity of the aftermath.
Trauma manifests itself in numerous physical and psychological reactions. While some people will react minimally, there are also some serious trauma responses that warrant attention and treatment. Regardless of your response to trauma, it’s important to know that a diversity of experiences are normal, and you shouldn’t feel responsible for effects that stick around.
The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies offers the following three categories of trauma responses.
- Resistance: when a person does not exhibit any problems following a traumatic event, this is called resistance. It’s common except in cases of sexual violence or abuse.
- Resilience: many individuals face some turmoil for days, weeks or months after a hard event. However, these individuals will naturally recover and symptoms subside after some time.
- PTSD: the emotional effects that linger from trauma are generally diagnosed as PTSD with the collaboration of a professional. PTSD is a common diagnosis and the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that roughly 3.6 percent of adults met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD in the past year.
If you’re facing PTSD from a terrible event in your past, you should never feel that your symptoms are abnormal or unworthy of treatment. PTSD can affect anyone regardless of his or her background and is not a product of a person’s will or character.
Trauma signs and symptoms
If you’ve discerned that a terrible event in your life has left an impact on you, you may want to look for these symptoms. If you identify that several of these signs apply to your current state, a professional can conduct an assessment and help you get the needed intervention.
- Fears about the safety of self or others
- Socially withdrawn or self-isolating
- Sadness or depression
- Disassociation and feeling detached from the world
- Stomachaches, headaches or indigestion
- Avoiding talking or thinking about the event
- Avoiding places or people that offer reminders of the event
- Shock or denial
- Feeling hopeless
- Difficult concentrating, making decisions or problem-solving
These signs or others can be observed in yourself or a loved one who is dealing with the residual effects of trauma.
Effects of trauma on mental health
Trauma is strongly associated with other mental health conditions, like anxiety, depression, eating disorders and substance use disorders. Often, a person will seek treatment for another mental health disorder only to find that trauma is underlying the condition.
Trauma can happen before or after the onset of a mental health disorder, but treating both simultaneously is essential. Trauma can worsen the symptoms of mental illness, leading to emotional distress, dysfunction in daily life and even self-harm.
The effects of trauma can be long-lasting and can interfere with daily life, but treatment is available to help trauma survivors heal. With the right therapy, it’s possible to heal the wounds of trauma and move forward with a healthy, fulfilled life.
If you are located in eastern Pennsylvania and are looking for trauma-informed mental health care, The Light Program can help. Find a location near you or reach out to our admissions team for assistance.