Understanding Emotional and Psychological Trauma
Causes of Trauma
Emotional and psychological trauma are the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, makes you feel helpless and leaves you with a heightened sense of vulnerability and impending danger. The widely held definition is that traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety. Examples include:
Sudden or violent death of a loved one Rape An auto accident Discovery of a life threatening illness Physical, verbal or sexual abuse (see Childhood Trauma) A natural disaster.
However, any situation that leaves you feeling scared, alone and overwhelmed can be traumatic, even if your safety and life are not threatened. In other words it is your subjective experience of the event, the more scared and helpless you feel the more traumatic the event.
Some factors that increase the likelihood of a stressful event being traumatic are:
It happened unexpectedly You were unprepared for it You felt powerless to prevent it It happened repeatedly Someone was intentionally cruel It happened in childhood
It is also important to note that having been traumatized in childhood increases the risk for retraumitization in adulthood.
After a traumatic event people experience a wide range of physical and emotional responses. The symptoms may last for days, weeks, months and, in the case of untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for years. Possible emotional reactions include:
Shock, denial or disbelief Anger and/or irritability Guilt and self-blame Feeling sad or hopeless Confusion, difficulty concentrating Spiraling thoughts Anxiety and fear Feeling numb and disconnected Withdrawing from others
Possible physical symptoms include:
Insomnia or nightmares Being startled easily Racing heartbeat Aches and pains Fatigue Difficulty concentrating Edginess and agitation Muscle tension
Trauma does respond to treatment. Traumatic experiences, including the emotional, physical sensory memories related to the trauma get "stuck" in the limbic system of the brain and are not integrated into the frontal lobe of the brain. The limbic system is the primitive part of the brain where are fight, flight or freeze responses are stored. Our frontal lobes are where the Brain's executive or higher level functions take place, this includes our ability to process and make sense of our emotions and experiences. When a trauma is stuck in the limbic system the memories can get triggered and the person feels as if they are re-experiencing the trauma. The goal of treatment, whether it is EMDR, hypnotherapy or psychodynamic therapy is to essentially move the experience from the limbic system to the frontal lobe where it can be processed and integrated. Therapy can not undo what has been done but it can help the person tolerate the memory, release the fear, hopelessness, anger and self-blame common in unresolved trauma and move forward with hope and purpose.
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