WHAT IS TRAUMA?
Trauma is defined as a deeply disturbing or distressing experience. You’ve probably heard words and phrases like “traumatized”, “PTSD”, or “traumatic”. Fortunately, we are living in a society where we are getting more comfortable talking about trauma. The reality is, we all have dealt with traumatic experiences. We may not all have Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Acute Stress Disorder (ASD), but we have all had negative or scare experiences that stick with us for a long time.
BIG “T” TRAUMA AND LITTLE “t” TRAUMA
When many people hear trauma they think of natural disasters, car accidents, or war. But trauma can refer to many different situations and events. Some people have started referring to types of trauma as big “T” trauma and little “t” trauma. Big “T” trauma refers to big traumatic events that you probably imagine when you think of trauma. Big “T” trauma could look like war, sexual violence, childhood abuse, natural disasters, life-threatening injury, physical violence, etc. It can also be witnessing any of these events. Little “t” trauma refers to events or repeated events that are traumatic, but on a slightly smaller scale. Little “t” trauma could emotional abuse, non life-threatening injuries, death of a pet, minor car accidents, a bad break-up, etc.
The truth is, both types of trauma are… well… traumatic. It is normal to feel like something extremely hard you went through (i.e. a break-up) feels like trauma, but maybe it feels strange to say that out loud. Humans are resilient. We have incredible strength to carry us through life’s challenges, but sometimes bit “T” or little “t” trauma just doesn’t leave us alone. Maybe something that is considered little “t” is affecting you like big “T”. Either way, you may be suffering from traumatic stress. Traumatic stress occurs as a result of surviving trauma. It can be hard for our brains to process these events in an adaptive way. This is when we experience traumatic stress.
SYMPTOMS OF TRAUMATIC STRESS
Stress reactions to trauma are common, but can feel debilitating. Here are a few symptoms to look out for if you’ve experienced a traumatic event.
Trouble making decisions
Difficulty problem solving
Confusion or disorientation
Seeing the event over and over in your head
Trouble with common calculations or naming common objects
Stomach problems (nausea, upset stomach, diarrhea, vomiting)
Tremors and/or shakes
Sweating and/or chills
Chest pain and/or tightness of chest
Heart palpitations and/or rapid heartbeat
Headaches, neckaches, and/or backaches
Depression and/or sadness
Feelings of abandonment, loss, or loneliness
Feeling numb and/or shocked
POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a disorder that can develop after one more more stressful events. You might familiar with “fight, flight, or freeze”. These are all reactions to situations of extreme fear or stress. Flight refers to wanting to run away from the event, fight refers to wanting to stay and confront it, and freeze refers to feeling frozen and unable to do anything. These are all very normal responses to extreme fear! It is normal to be ashamed of the response you had in a stressful situation, but you were doing the best you could with what you had at the time.
After a stressful event occurs, you may develop several intense symptoms. If symptoms persist for more than a month after the event, it may be a sign that you are experiencing PTSD. The following are symptoms of PTSD according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5):
Intrusive memories of the traumatic event
Recurring dreams of the traumatic event
Feeling “out of it” when thinking about the event
Feeling as if the event were happening again
Avoiding objects or thoughts that remind you of the traumatic event
Trouble remembering important details of the event
Negative beliefs about yourself, others, or the world
Trouble experiencing positive emotions
Feeling isolated or detached from others
Feeling consistently angry, afraid, guilty, ashamed, etc.
Persistent irritability or angry outbursts
Risky or self-destructive behavior
Feeling alert or on edge
Difficulty sleeping (falling asleep, staying asleep, or feeling rested)
Feeling that you’re outside of your body, or that your surroundings are not real.
COMPLEX PTSD AND SIMPLE PTSD
PTSD can be developed in reaction to a single event or multiple events. Simple PTSD refers to PTSD in reaction to a single event, for example a car accident. Complex PTSD refers to a longer history of traumatic events such as war, childhood abuse, repeated exposure to violence, etc. If you suffer from PTSD, complex or simple, there is hope for you!
TREATMENT FOR PTSD
EMDR (Eye-Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing) is the number one treatment for PSTD according to the World Health Organization. When we experience trauma, our brains often store the information of the event maladaptively. This is why symptoms of stress and PSTD arise. Our brains can think that the event is happening again, that you are not safe, or that you must avoid certain things or thoughts in order to protect yourself. This is not because the brain is broken, but because it is trying very hard to protect you from another stressful event. When are brains are overwhelmed with trauma, it often stores information this way. Think of it this way - if you are packing your house for a move and then your house lights on fire, you will probably scramble to put anything in any boxes and not worry about organization. EMDR can help move the information that has been stored maladaptively in the brain to a more adaptive part of the brain. Through reprocessing the events with EMDR, you can reduce symptoms of PTSD and begin living a more free life. Check out my page about EMDR here to learn more and to make your first step towards gaining control of your life again!