What is trauma?
Trauma involves exposure to a catastrophic event, usually of a life threatening or seriously physically threatening nature. Traumatic events include experiences such as witnessing violence, being a victim of crime or violence, living through a natural disaster, being a combatant or civilian in a war zone, and witnessing or being been a victim of a severe accident.
Most mental health professionals have expanded the definition of trauma to include betrayal trauma. Betrayal trauma occurs when the people or institutions we depend on for survival violate us in some way. An example of betrayal trauma is childhood physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Please see our page on Surviving Childhood Abuse for information regarding this topic.
People who have encountered traumatic events experience their distress at different times after the event. Some people may have immediate reactions, whereas others may not have reactions for quite some time. There is no standard response or pattern of responses to a crisis. Some common reactions that people have after a traumatic event:
- Feelings may become intense and sometimes unpredictable.
- You may be more anxious, fearful, hopeless, or irritable than usual.
- You may have repeated thoughts and vivid memories of the event.
- You may feel confused, have memory impairment, or have difficulty making decisions.
- Your interpersonal relationships may become strained, e.g. increased conflict or becoming withdrawn and avoiding your usual activities.
- You may have more physical symptoms than usual, such as fatigue, nausea, sweating, or chills.
- Pre-existing conditions may become worse.
- Sleep might be disturbed.
- You may have recurrent emotional reactions on the anniversary of the event.
What you can do to manage your symptoms:
- Give yourself time to heal.
- Ask for support from people who care about you.
- Find out about local support groups—we can help.
- Try to have a healthy diet and get plenty of rest.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol.
- Try to re-establish your regular routines like mealtimes, exercise, hobbies, and fun activities.
- Try to avoid making major decisions at this time—this will add more stress.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
What if it has been a while since the traumatic event and I'm not getting better? What if my symptoms are more intense than what was just described? You may be experiencing Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). People with PTSD may have few or many of the following symptoms:
- You may have constant and intrusive thoughts, feelings, images about the event. No matter how hard you try, you can't make it stop.
- You may have flashbacks or nightmares where you feel you are reliving the event. Flashbacks involve a person losing grip on reality and perceiving him or herself to be in the traumatic situation. An example of this would be a crime victim acting as if he or she is fighting off attackers.
- You may become extremely distressed when something reminds you of the event. A sight, sound or smell can activate memories. For example, getting into a car can be extremely distressing for the victim of a car wreck.
- You may feel extremely on-guard or in danger. You may startle very easily and may be jumpy.
- You may avoid thoughts, feelings or conversation about the traumatic event.
- You may avoid people, places, and/or activities that remind you of the event. For example, crime victims may want to avoid the place where they were attacked.
- You may not feel like participating in your usual activities.
- You may not feel connected to people. You may avoid socializing. It may be difficult to trust people.
- You may feel numb, and may not feel emotions like you used to.
People with PTSD may often experience other psychological difficulties along with the PTSD. These other psychological problems may include depression, anxiety disorders, panic disorder, eating disorders and alcohol/substance abuse.
Seeking treatment for PTSD
Seeking treatment can feel terrifying even though the symptoms that you are experiencing are extremely stressful. To seek treatment means you are facing the prospect of discussing the painful event and all the emotions surrounding it. You may be concerned that discussing the trauma will stir up disturbing feelings and that you may anticipate those feelings to be overwhelming. We realize that discussing trauma can be difficult and we will let you control the pace of revealing the details of your trauma. We will do our utmost to create an environment of sensitivity, safety and trust where you can talk about what has happened to you.
If you are suffering after a traumatic event, please call the Counseling Center to make an appointment to discuss what you have been going through and how we can help you.
Adapted from the American Psychological Association publication Managing Traumatic Stress and the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder publication PTSD Diagnosis and Treatment for Mental Health Clinicians.