Taking The Leap: Seeking Initial Counseling After A Trauma
Updated February 14, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Chante’ Gamby, LCSW
Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include sexual assault & violence which could potentially be triggering.
For many, it can be a challenge to accept that they need help from others when trying to get on track and find their way after a traumatic experience. It can be humbling to accept that you need initial counseling and that letting someone else in can help you to begin to feel healthy and happy again. Trauma is not just for veterans, it can happen to anyone at any time and leaves many people with a condition called post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, 70% of adults in the United States have experienced some kind of traumatic event at least once in their lives. That is about 225 million people! Out of those people, over 20% of them have post-traumatic stress disorder, which is almost 45 million people.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma can be anything that happens in your life that has a lasting impact and causes deep distress. It could be something as seemingly inconspicuous like a nasty comment made by a loved one or more of a physical trauma like an assault or accident. It could be something from your childhood that you do not even consciously remember. You do not even have to be the one who is in the accident or traumatic incident because just witnessing a serious or frightening scene can cause trauma that can affect you for weeks, months, or years to come. Post-traumatic stress disorder may also be caused by something like being diagnosed with a serious medical condition such as cancer or heart disease. Trauma is essentially a lasting marker in the brain resulting in unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, feelings of numbness, moments of dissociation, or even physical symptoms like nausea or headaches.
Trauma is Multifarious:
No case and no person is exactly the same, while one thing may leave a lasting impact on one, another may not be as deeply impacted. That same person may falter in another situation, as individual resiliency is idiosyncratic and hard to predict. We expect those exposed to a natural disaster, violent attack, or a car crash to be traumatized by their experience, while forgetting that some traumas are more difficult to recognize, like racism, oppression, or discrimination.
Our society has deeply rooted patterns and mechanisms that lead to the subjugation of people based on their gender, race, or ideology that can be traumatic experiences for individuals. Certain concessions that we encounter everyday may not seem abnormal, but may also be maladaptive coping that we utilize in order to survive. These things affect us on a deeper level than we may recognize, validating a call for reflection into our existing thought patterns and schemas.
Some Causes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Although military combat is an obvious cause of post-traumatic stress disorder, it is definitely not the only cause. Some of the most often reported causes include:
A special group of individuals are at a high risk for post-traumatic stress disorder who deal with trauma every day. These people include police officers, ambulance drivers or paramedics, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), fire fighters, doctors or nurses, search and rescue, coast guard, and anyone else who deals with trauma every day. There are special assessments and support groups for first responders who think they need help.
Shock to The System:
Post-traumatic stress disorder, while often associated with soldiers' post-combat, is something that can develop in any individual that has experienced some sort of shocking or traumatizing event. A study done in Chicago, Illinois found that 43% of those patients who visited a certain hospital suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and most of them were gunshot or stabbing victims. When you encounter a stressor or experience a trauma, your nervous system reacts by releasing certain chemicals that elicit particular survival responses. This is known as the infamous fight-or-flight response, characterized by the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, meant to keep the individual from harm.
The Fight or Flight Response
The fight or flight response, which is also known as the acute stress response, was discovered in the Cannon while studying the sympathetic nervous systems of animals. During the fight or flight response, heart rate is high and blood is mobilized toward the arms and legs, leaving less energy to be used for cognitive functions or immunity. This is why your thinking may seem fuzzy or may not be functioning at its best. People in this state often make rash decisions that are not based on clear thinking. In post-traumatic stress disorder, this response is elicited more frequently, leading the individual to experience extreme distress due to an over-reactive nervous system keeping them on edge and expecting a threat, even if there may not be an actual threat in that moment.
How Do You Know if You Have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Most people have no idea they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder until something happens that causes a noticeable reaction. For example, you may be suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder and having nightmares but not connect the two until you start being unable to go places or talk to people. You may have a panic attack or an outburst at work or school. Here are some of the most common symptoms of PTSD:
• Flashbacks (reliving the traumatic incident)
• Terrifying images or thoughts
• Panicking when you see or hear something that reminds you of the traumatic incident
• Aggravation or feeling on edge
• Dissociation (not being aware of where you are)
• Aggressive behavior
• Trouble concentrating
• Easily startled and jumpy
• Inability to sleep or stay asleep
• Lack of sexual drive
• Unable to do certain tasks
• Lack of interest in normal activities you usually enjoy
• Trembling, shaking, shivering
• Reckless or self-destructive behavior
• Panic attack (rapid heart rate, sweating, shaking, nausea, agitation, feeling like you are going to die)
• Avoiding certain places or people that remind you of the traumatic incident
• Depression, feelings of sadness
• Trying to stay busy to keep from thinking about the traumatic incident
• Feeling numb or cut off
• Feeling alone or like nobody cares
• Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol
• Unable to have a lasting relationship
• Guilt or hopelessness
• Lack of appetite
• Chronic pain or nausea
• Blaming yourself for the traumatic incident
• Constant anger or shame
• Thoughts of harming yourself or others
If you have any of these symptoms, it is time for you to talk to someone. Whether it is a family member, friend, or therapist, you need to tell someone how you are feeling. Just the lack of sleep and inability to relax can cause serious mental distress. You can have trouble keeping a job, having a lasting relationship, and caring for yourself. In addition, the continual stress can contribute to physical problems like heart disease or stroke.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Treatment for those who have experienced a trauma is unique in every case, but usually involves some form of cognitive behavioral therapy in the hopes of smoothing out the existing triggered pathways and replace them with healthier and less reactive ones. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be used to deal with all kinds of mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. It works by breaking down the link between the mind (cognition) and the body (behavior). The initial session involves the therapist completing an assessment. From there, you and your therapist will work together to determine goals for treatment.
Treatment for trauma typically takes about 5 -15 sessions that last between 30 and 60 minutes, depending on the cause and severity of the post-traumatic stress disorder. The premise behind cognitive behavioral therapy is to establish coping strategies that target problem behaviors and thought patterns, essentially bolstering these abilities in the brain through attended exercise. As a widespread method for treating mental disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder, cognitive behavioral therapy allows for flexibility to find what works for you and your lifestyle.
Although visiting with a therapist can be intimidating, the internet has allowed for the emergence of online interfaces like BetterHelp.com, which help to remotely connect those needing help with appropriate licensed mental health professionals. In fact, BetterHelp.com is the largest mental health care resource in the world and has over 2,000 licensed therapists and counselors to help you.
They have helped over 1,500,000 individuals with all sorts of mental health issues such as anxiety disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even couples' problems. With online therapy, you can interact with a therapist or counselor however and whenever you want and you do not even have to leave your house. This is especially good for those people who are suffering from such severe post-traumatic stress disorder that they do not want to leave the house. BetterHelp.com offers several venues such as video conferencing, texting, email, telephone, and instant messages. By identifying and working through our own traumas and how this affects us, we can find ways both to cope and live a more satisfying and comfortable life.