When a person witnesses or survives an event that is shocking, disturbing, or painful to them on an emotional level, it is called trauma. People of all ages can experience trauma, which may occur at any time and at any location. In fact, nearly everyone at some time in their lives will experience it in some form. The results of trauma can profoundly affect a person’s life on a short-term basis, or this can become a serious long-term problem. For this reason, it is important that people understand the seriousness of these events and learn to recognize when they are beginning to affect their lives. This is a resource guide for recovering from trauma.
An emotional or psychological trauma is one that leaves a person feeling afraid, helpless, and insecure. This type of trauma doesn’t always result in physical injury, although it may be a life-threatening event. Although there may or may not be a physical injury associated with the event, the strength of one’s emotional response is what determines whether it is a traumatic event for the individual and how traumatized they are about it. The likelihood that an event will result in an emotional or psychological trauma increases if it happens repeatedly, occurs unexpectedly and catches an individual off guard, if it was an intentional act of cruelty, or if it occurred during one’s childhood. In addition, if a person feels helpless during the incident, the chances of it becoming a psychologically or emotionally traumatic event also increase. Examples of what can turn into a psychological trauma include natural disasters, vehicle accidents, unexpected deaths of family members, terrorist attacks, violent attacks, a brutal crime, and illness that is of a life-threatening nature. A break-up from a relationship, an experience that is humiliating, and surgery early in life are all also potential causes.
It isn’t enough to just understand what can cause trauma, however. It is also necessary to know what to expect and when someone’s behavior should be a cause for concern. Not everyone who experiences trauma responds in the same manner or to the same degree. Some of the common emotional responses include shock, anger, confusion, anxiety and fear, shame or guilt, hopelessness, sadness, and/or a sense of numbness. There may also be physical symptoms that manifest, such as an inability to sleep, fatigue, poor concentration, tenseness of the muscles, or becoming easily startled or alarmed.
When a person suffers from these symptoms, they should last no longer than several months; however, the symptoms may also go away within a few days. For some people, the emotional and physical symptoms of trauma do not resolve on their own. They continue for months and begin to affect their personal and professional lives. The effects may worsen to the point that this becomes a severe condition that is known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is most commonly associated with war veterans, but it can affect anyone of any age who has witnessed or is directly affected by a traumatic event. People who suffer from PTSD may have intrusive memories in the form of repeated nightmares or flashbacks to the traumatic event. Two other signs that are commonly associated with this disorder include heightened arousal and avoidance.
If emotional or psychological trauma seems to be developing into PTSD, or if there is no improvement after several months, it is important to seek medical assistance. A physician can help people who are coping with trauma by guiding them with self-help strategies. These strategies are ones that both the sufferer and their family can participate in. For people who are suffering from PTSD or whose symptoms are not resolving, therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy may be necessary.
Information on Trauma
- What is Psychological Trauma?
- Coping With a Traumatic Event (PDF)
- About Trauma: What is Trauma?
- Psychological Trauma: A Common Problem
- What is Trauma? (PDF)
- Does Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Require Trauma?
- What is PTSD?
- Rethinking Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Crisis and Prevention: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- TBI & PTSD Quick Facts (PDF)
- PTSD Basics
Causes of Trauma
- Emotional and Psychological Trauma
- Traumatic Events
- What is a Potentially Traumatic Event?
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Traumatic Events
- West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services (FRIS): Understanding and Addressing Emotional Trauma (PDF)
- Symptoms and Behaviors Associated with Exposure to Trauma
- Recovering Emotionally from Disaster
- Warning Signs of Trauma-Related Stress (PDF)
- Signs and Symptoms of Vicarious Trauma (PDF)
- Psychological and Behavioral Impact of Trauma for Teens (PDF)
- Managing Strong Emotional Reactions to Traumatic Events (PDF)