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Understanding Trauma

People often experience situations that leave lingering psychological pain or injury. Some of these events include: abuse, neglect, natural disasters, large-scale accidents that result in injury or death, violence, or aggression toward a specific identity group.
Experiencing a traumatic event or series of events may result in a wide variety of reactions in a person’s life. The trauma survivor’s prior experiences, culltural background, genetics, support system and other life stressors are just some examples of how the survivor’s experiences can impact how they will react to the traumatic event. 
Survivors of trauma can come from every background, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnic and racial background, education and socioeconomic status, etc. Trauma can impact everyone. Not only does trauma impact the person who experiences the traumatic event(s), trauma can impact people who have relationships with survivors of trauma. These people may experience a range of different feelings regarding the survivor’s experiences. It is important to note that individuals who have relationships with survivors can also experience common trauma symptoms similar to survivors. 
When you experience trauma, it can change the chemical makeup of your brain. Neurotransmitters associated with stress and adrenaline are found at an increased rate. These chemicals are associated with the fight/flight/freeze response and anxiety. Emotions, memory and decision making can be affected due to the presence of these chemicals. 

Common Symptoms After Traumatic Event(s)

Each individual may experience a wide range of reactions after a traumatic event. These reactions can impact emotional, physical or social aspects of the individual’s life. It is important to remember that these reactions are normal responses to abnormal situations. Allow yourself and others permission to react, engage in self-care, and ask for help when needed. Please remember that different people will have different responses to a trauma. Comparing your or someone else’s reactions to another’s is often not productive. Following are some examples of these reactions.
Sadness and/or lack of interest in things once enjoyable
Increased worry, nervousness and/or hypervigilance
Feeling helpless
Changes in mood
Feeling numb
Physical Effects
Changes in eating, sleeping and/or hygiene
Increased fatigue
Gastrointestinal irritability
Muscle tension or headaches
Decreased immune system
Social Effects
Difficulty with motivation
Difficulty being around others or difficulty being alone
Nervousness in crowds
Loss of trust in others
Withdrawal from activities the person used to enjoy

Trauma Diagnoses

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Acute Stress Disorder are two mental health diagnoses related to the experience of trauma. Experiencing some symptoms related to these diagnoses does not necessarily mean that you have the diagnosis. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Acute Stress Disorder require an evaluation from a mental health provider. 
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health diagnosis characterized by a multitude of distressing symptoms that are difficult to control. These symptoms could include nightmares, vivid memories of the trauma or events leading up to the trauma, avoiding thoughts of the event, and/or experiencing flashbacks. 
Acute Stress Disorder is an additional mental health diagnosis related to the experiencing of a traumatic event. This disorder has similar symptoms to PTSD. However, Acute Stress Disorder is only present for one month or less. 

Coping After a Traumatic Event

After a significant trauma, it’s important to give yourself time to reflect and engage in self-care to gradually allow life to return to normal. These actions often involve some emotional tasks, some interpersonal tasks, and taking some specific actions that allow life to continue while you are recovering from the effects of the trauma.
Validate the emotion. It’s important to know that it’s typical to feel a wide variety of emotions after experiencing a traumatic event. Feeling sad, afraid, guilty, shameful, or numb can all be normal reactions to an abnormal situation. 
Acknowledge the event. Give yourself time and permission to think clearly about the event.
Make necessary accommodations. It’s common for people not to be able to function at their full capacity when trying to deal with such an emotional situation. Ask for help in making these temporary adjustments in your life.
Find a community. Spend time with other individuals who have experienced something similar to you. Even though each person’s experiences with trauma is unique, hearing from others can help validate your experiences and emotions. 
Create a safe environment. Take time to critically evaluate the physical surroundings in which you live and work and find positive ways to increase your sense of safety.
Remember that you cannot control everything. It is important to note that no one is able to completely predict, prevent or control the actions of others or all situations that might arise. 
Be patient. It takes time to recover from a traumatic event. Everyone is affected differently. 
Remember. Just because everything seems to be back to normal does not mean that you or others have finished having feelings about the event. Don’t be surprised at reactions that come later on. 
Life after Trauma
Coping with life after trauma does not fit a specific mold or formula. Life after trauma can be messy and impact a person’s life differently from day to day. During times of stress, people who have experienced trauma can have nightmares, flashbacks, mood swings and changes in behavior (i.e. eating, sleeping and hygiene). Even though people may have not experienced these symptoms previously or for an extended period of time, survivors of trauma can begin to experience new and disruptive reactions in their lives. It is helpful during this time to seek informal or formal support through friends, family or a mental health professional. 

When to Seek Professional Support

Survivors of trauma may find it beneficial to seek therapy from a mental health professional if they need additional emotional support and if symptoms related to their trauma are impacting everyday life functioning, such as: 
  • Difficulty eating or sleeping for an extended period of time. 
  • Fear of falling asleep due to an increase in nightmares.
  • Fear of going out or problems attending school or work outings.
  • Persistent problems with memory.
  • Persistent problems with motivation.
  • Presence of flashbacks or dissociative episodes. 

Want to Know More?

American Psychological Association topics including trauma. Find recent research and information about many topics related to mental health.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a national organization focused on the prevention of lives and helping others. Their website provides a wide range of information about mental health including specific information about trauma.
Psychology Today
This website includes interesting articles written by renowned psychologists, academics, psychiatrists and writers regarding psychology and mental health. It can also assist in finding a mental health provider in your area.

Get help ASAP

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). They also offer a chat option through their website,