What It Means To Suffer From Psychological Trauma And What You Can Do About It
By Nadia Khan
Updated November 11, 2019
Reviewer Kelly L. Burns, MA, LPC, ATR-P
Psychological trauma happens in some of the most extreme situations. While everyone lives through an unpleasant experience now and then, only some people are unfortunate enough to experience true emotional trauma. To understand trauma, you need to not only look at the definition of it but also delve into the deeper meaning of how psychological trauma alters a life. Then, you can get help for yourself, or a loved one you know has faced a traumatic experience.
What Is Psychological Trauma?
When it comes to psychological trauma, it seems everyone is an amateur psychologist. People who don't know what trauma is may point at common experiences and proclaim they have scarred someone for life. However, psychological/emotional trauma has a very precise definition. What is it that separates psychological trauma from the merely unpleasant? The most important aspect has perceived a threat.
To be traumatic, an experience must meet the test of perceived threat. If the person does not perceive a threat to the life, bodily integrity, or sanity of themselves or someone close to them, the event is not considered traumatic. In addition to the perception of threat, the event must overwhelm the person's ability to cope with the situation. Trauma can happen in an instant or over the course of many years. Emotional trauma changes the person's later perceptions, feelings, and behaviors.
How Do I Know If I Have Experienced Trauma?
Many different mental health practitioners and theorists have proposed their emotional trauma test. One test relates to how often you breathe and how much O2 you take in. A test that is still being researched is the Distressing Event Questionnaire. In this emotional trauma test, you answer questions about your own experiences. Researchers continue to investigate the validity of a test that relies on the subject's own ability to remember and accurately report the events in question.
Another test, called The Life Events Checklist, is also being studied. It has been compared to another test, called the Traumatic Life Events Questionnaire that has already been proven accurate in several studies. You can take some of these tests online, but they provide the most help for people who suffer from past emotional traumas when they're given, interpreted, and followed up on by a professional counselor.
Types of Events and Situations That May Cause Emotional Trauma
- Floods, fire, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes
- Airplane crashes, car wrecks, dam failures, hazardous materials spills
- Rape, robbery, murder attempts, murder of someone close to you
- War, terrorist attacks, mass shootings
- Kidnapping, torture
- Domestic violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional/verbal abuse
- Violence or abuse directed at someone you're attached to, especially if they're your caregiver
- Medical procedures
- Threats related to poverty such as food insecurity, lack of shelter, inadequate clothing, etc.
While any perceived threat can cause psychological trauma, the most damaging threats are repeated, difficult or impossible to predict, sadistic, inflicted by a caregiver, those that are caused by people rather than natural occurrences, or those that happened in childhood.
Symptoms of Emotional Trauma
Some people have been known to survive disastrous events without exhibiting any signs of trauma. For them, the explanation may be that the situation didn't surpass their ability to cope. They are the rare and lucky ones. People who have survived a perceived threat to their life, body, or sanity do have symptoms that may occur right away or crop up later in life. Some of the symptoms of trauma include physical reactions, including:
- Unexplained aches and pain
- Panic and anxiety
- New or increased drug or alcohol use
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
Along with physical effects of psychological trauma, you may also experience emotional effects. These can include:
- Angry outbursts or irritability
- Always feeling afraid
- Feelings of grief and loss
- Avoiding anything that reminds you of the event
- Numbing and/or detachment
- Isolating yourself
- Denying the event had any impact on you
- Feeling shame about the event
- Irregularities in sleeping and eating
- Feeling helpless and hopeless
- Having suicidal thoughts
- Other thought disturbances
How Psychological Trauma Might Affect Your Life
Your life choices depend partly on the way you feel both emotionally and physically. Changes in thought patterns that can occur after a psychological trauma leads to changes in behavior as well. Slowly or suddenly, your life may take a negative path.
These changes can lead to life problems that compound your misery. If you turn to drugs or alcohol, you may lose your health, your freedom, your relationships, your job, your financial security, or in some cases, your life. If you fall into a gambling habit, you can lose all your material possessions and any relationships that depend on you acting in financially responsible ways.
Disrupted sleep may jeopardize your job and may endanger lives as you to fall asleep while driving or operating heavy equipment. Overeating can cause weight gain and aggravate medical conditions such as diabetes. Not eating enough can cause weakness and malnutrition.
These are just a few of the effects psychological trauma can have on your life. As you avoid what is emotionally painful, you limit your choices. As you remain stuck in the past traumatic event, your ability to stay present in the here-and-now diminishes. As you base your decisions on factors related to the traumatic event, your grip on reality weakens. Your life is forever altered. However, there is hope for people who have experienced emotional trauma.
One more important note is that many of the people who suffer from emotional trauma also have mental illnesses, such as anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, or phobias. It isn't clear at this point whether this correlation is because a person with mental illness is more vulnerable to trauma or because the trauma triggers the mental illness.
Can Emotional Trauma Be Cured?
True psychological trauma becomes a part of your psyche. It stays with you in one way or another throughout your life. While the symptoms and effects may diminish or seem to go away, the event has become a part of your experience.
There is hope for people who have experienced emotional trauma. The effects of that devastating experience can be minimized and put in the past. The symptoms can be managed. There may not be any way to erase or cure the trauma, but you don't have to let it encroach on your current daily life or define who you are as a person.
The Hazards of Going It Alone
Perhaps, you want to be brave. You want to manage your problems. You don't want to be a burden on others. Maybe you're embarrassed that you can't get past the symptoms of psychological trauma. For whatever reason, many people try to deal with their traumatic experiences on their own.
They may use a variety of techniques they've heard about. One is journaling. This is a fantastic way to face what happened, explore your feelings about it, and identify the symptoms of it. The problem is that the act of writing can cause you to have extreme distress and increase your feelings of powerlessness. Without an objective, knowledgeable counselor to guide you in dealing with these feelings, you can become so lost in the experience that your symptoms worsen.
Another technique people sometimes use if their main symptom is anger is to find an inanimate object to punch or kick. It might sound like a reasonable way to let out the intense feelings of rage. Research shows that the opposite is true. The more you give in to your anger, the more those feelings and behaviors increase. They begin to feel normal to you, and the results can be serious. A therapist, on the other hand, can teach you appropriate anger management techniques that will allow you to deal with your anger in safe and productive ways.
So, what if none of these things happen? Have you succeeded in dealing with your emotional trauma on your own? It's much more likely that the symptoms will remain the same. If they go away for a time, they're more likely to return because you haven't learned how to prevent them from coming back.
So, What Can I Do?
When you're ready to face the trauma and learn how to get past it, the best thing you can do is to seek help from a qualified counselor. A counselor has the skills, knowledge, and experience needed to identify the effects of trauma on your life. They can take an objective perspective to get to the roots of the trauma and help you find the answers you need to move on once and for all.
At BetterHelp.com, you can connect with licensed counselors who specialize in therapy for emotional trauma as well as the types of problems that are associated with it. If you or a loved one is struggling with the effects of psychological trauma, get help as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the more poor decisions you might make, the more distress you'll feel, and the more you might lose. Therapy is your best solution. It's easy and affordable for Better Help. Best of all, it's highly effective in helping people deal with the fallout of past traumatic events.