In general, trauma can be defined as a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing. When loosely applied, this trauma definition can refer to something upsetting, such as being involved in an accident, having an illness or injury, losing a loved one, or going through a divorce. However, it can also encompass the far extreme and include experiences that are severely damaging, such as rape or torture.
Because events are viewed subjectively, this broad trauma definition is more of a guideline. Everyone processes a traumatic event differently because we all face them through the lens of prior experiences in our lives. For example: one person might be upset and fearful after going through a hurricane, but someone else might have lost family and barely escaped from a flooded home during Hurricane Katrina. In this case, a minor Category One hurricane may bring up traumatic flashbacks of their terrifying experience.
Because trauma reactions fall across a wide spectrum, psychologists have developed categories as a way to differentiate between types of trauma. Among them are complex trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and developmental trauma disorder.
Complex trauma happens repetitively. It often results in direct harm to the individual. The effects of complex trauma are cumulative. The traumatic experience frequently transpires within a particular time frame or within a specific relationship, and often in a specific setting.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can develop after a person has been exposed to a terrifying event or has been through an ordeal in which intense physical harm occurred or was threatened. Sufferers of this PTSD have persistent and frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal.
Developmental Trauma Disorder
Developmental trauma disorder is a recent term in the study of psychology. This disorder forms during a child’s first three years of life. The result of abuse, neglect, and/or abandonment, developmental trauma interferes with the infant or child’s neurological, cognitive, and psychological development. It disrupts the victim’s ability to attach to an adult caregiver.
An adult who inflicts developmental trauma usually doesn’t do it intentionally – rather, it happens because they are not aware of the social and emotional needs of children.
Often, shock and denial are typical reactions to a traumatic event. Over time, these emotional responses may fade, but a survivor may also experience reactions long-term. These can include:
- Persistent feelings of sadness and despair
- Unpredictable emotions
- Physical symptoms, such as nausea and headaches
- Intense feelings of guilt, as if they are somehow responsible for the event
- An altered sense of shame
- Feelings of isolation and hopelessness
Trauma therapy is not one-size-fits-all. It must be adapted to address different symptoms. Mental health professionals who are specially trained in treating trauma can assess the survivor’s unique needs and plan treatment specifically for them.
Currently, there are several trauma therapy modalities in place:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches the person become more aware of their thoughts and beliefs about their trauma and gives them skills to help them react to emotional triggers in a healthier way.
- Exposure therapy (also called In Vivo Exposure Therapy) is a form of cognitive behavior therapy that is used to reduce the fear associated with the emotional triggers caused by the trauma.
- Talk therapy (psychotherapy) is a method of verbal communication that is used to help a person find relief from emotional pain and strengthen the adaptive ways of problem management that the individual already possesses.
These modalities treat the memory portion (the unconscious) of the trauma, however we now know that a survivor’s conscious brain must be treated, as well. Recent studies have found that body-oriented approaches such as mindfulness, yoga, and EMDR are powerful tools for helping the mind and body reconnect.
Additionally, neurofeedback (a type of biofeedback that focuses on brain waves) shows promise in helping patients with trauma symptoms learn to change their brain wave activity to help them become calmer and better able to engage with others.
Healing from Trauma
It is possible to heal from emotional and psychological trauma. We know that the brain changes in response to a traumatic experience, however, by working with a mental health professional who specializes in trauma, you can leave your trauma behind and learn to feel safe again.