What It Means To Suffer From Psychological Trauma And What You Can Do About It
By: Darby Faubion
Updated May 19, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: 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.
In the United States, 61 percent of men and 51 percent of women report being exposed to at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. If trauma goes unaddressed, it may lead to mental illness and failing physical health. However, among those who seek help for psychological trauma, approximately 72 percent learn to cope with the traumatic event(s) and live a life free of long-term negative effects.
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.
Types of Events and Situations that May Cause Emotional Trauma
Traumatic events are defined as events that are powerfully upsetting. These events produce effects that intrude upon someone's daily life, creating a major threat to a person's psychological and/or physical wellbeing. A traumatic event may be the result of another person's actions, or it could be caused by an accident. Either way, the effects are very similar.
Some examples of traumatic events include:
- Natural disasters, such as fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, or hurricanes
- Physical or sexual assault
- Exposure to acts of war and/or terrorism
- Involvement in a car accident or workplace accident/event
- Domestic violence
- The unexpected death of a loved one, especially if it's related to an accident
How Do I Know If I Have Experienced Trauma?
Many people experience strong physical or emotional reactions following a traumatic event. In most cases, the feeling of uneasiness will diminish over time once the threat has been eliminated. However, depending on the severity of the event, some symptoms of psychological trauma may get worse or last for longer periods of time.
Some of the most common symptoms associated with psychological trauma include:
- Mood swings
- Intrusive thoughts about the event
- Flashbacks of the event
- Social isolation
- Easily startled
- Appearing/feeling anxious
- Sexual dysfunction
Unfortunately, the effects of psychological trauma can linger for years, especially without intervention. In fact, trauma can affect every aspect of life. Some of the most common effects of untreated trauma include:
- Substance abuse
- Social withdrawal
- Compulsive behavior
- Sexual promiscuity
Untreated psychological trauma may eventually lead to mental illness, including an anxiety disorder, depression, or phobias. That's why it's extremely important to seek treatment if you've experienced trauma.
Recovering from Psychological Trauma
Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event is scarred. However, recovery does require dealing with the painful emotions by taking time to process them. If the person who has been traumatized does not deal with the feelings of distress, they tend to replay the event over and over again in their mind, which can lead to long-term stress.
There are four essential steps to addressing and overcoming psychological trauma. Learning these steps can give you a sense of control over the situation.
Stage One: Circuit Breaking
Much like an electrical system, the human nervous system can become overstimulated. This is often what happens when a traumatic event takes place. As a natural response, the body tends to shut down or function only at a basic level. Some people feel like they're in shock or numb at this stage, and others report feeling emotionally and spiritually disconnected.
Stage Two: Return of Feelings
Once the initial shock wears off, normal feelings and emotions begin to return. During this time, it may seem like the affected person constantly talks about the event. Some may write in journals or even draw to process the situation. This is a way of releasing the feelings of being overwhelmed, so they can begin to heal.
Stage Three: Constructive Action
Taking action seems to give individuals a sense of control, which is important after experiencing a traumatic event. The sense of powerlessness that many experience after trauma can feel crippling. For some, even the simplest act, such as sending cards to people, visiting hospitals, or cooking a meal for someone, can help them return to normal. Anything that gives one a sense of purpose can promote healing from a psychological trauma.
Stage Four: Reintegration
When someone suffers from psychological trauma, one of the best ways to experience healing and to become stronger is to become involved with others. Being willing to talk to others who may be experiencing a similar situation is one way to release the frustration and pain of a traumatic event. During this stage of healing, many people express a renewed commitment to goals and a deeper connection to others.
When You Need Help for Emotional Trauma
Many people who suffer from psychological trauma are afraid to reach out for help. However, it can be difficult to manage the symptoms of trauma without professional intervention. If you've experienced psychological trauma, you're not alone, and help is available. Experienced counselors and therapists can provide a safe space where you can talk about traumatic events. They can also teach you coping mechanisms to help you deal with the trauma, so that long-term negative effects will be reduced or eliminated.
Many people who have experienced trauma find it difficult to open up to a counselor face-to-face. This is where online counseling comes in. BetterHelp offers completely anonymous online counseling with a licensed professional, so you can meet with someone from the comfort of your own home or anywhere you have an internet connection.
BetterHelp's mission is to provide help to anyone who is struggling with life events when and where you need it. Their network of licensed counselors offers support for hundreds of issues, including trauma. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.
"Billie is WONDERFUL!!!!!! She's kind, responsive, caring, validating - everything I could ever hope for in a therapist. I came from a very abusive, traumatic childhood that still influences who I am, and Billie is helping me undo that damage. She answers me every day, responds to everything I write to her, and always answers my questions. When I get stuck, she nudges me forward with gentle suggestions that I can use or not. She's respectful and gentle ALWAYS! I feel like I'm making so much progress with her, and I feel so, so, SO lucky to have her!"
"I have been working with Rachel for a couple of months now and I feel so lucky to have her! She is an amazing listener and adds so much positivity to our conversations. She has helped me start to process years of childhood trauma, learn coping mechanisms for my anxiety, and has encouraged me through postpartum depression. She is simply outstanding and I look forward to working with her for months to come! Thank you Rachel and BetterHelp for this amazing service. This program has saved my life."
Psychological trauma is real. It can be caused by any number of factors, and individuals respond to it differently. If you've experienced psychological trauma, you may feel like you're stuck, but you can regain your emotional wellbeing. Take the first step today.