Typically when we think of trauma, we may think in terms of experiencing physical violence or witnessing the same. While this is certainly true in some cases, there are psychological sources of trauma as well.
Trauma is defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as, “the emotional response someone has to an extremely negative event.”
Examples of these include:
Due to our past experiences we all process traumatic events differently.
It is important to note that trauma is a normal reaction to a horrible or deeply distressing event. Trauma damages our brain and is an injury not an illness. Our brain actually changes in response to a traumatic experience.
Our bodies are adaptive. But when we’re in “fight our flight” mode, we have little in the way of self reflection. In this state, we can be impulsive and lack focus, unable to think of future outcomes.
When your system is aroused for too long, you may have difficulty regulating emotions and behaviors. Symptoms can vary from person to person, however some signs that you may be experiencing traumatic stress are:
Getting triggered does not require that you experience the same stressors (i.e. abuse, abandonment, physical or sexual hurt). Just the repeated perception of threat or a stress-filled environment is adequate. Also, just because we may be afraid does not mean we’re in danger. Our painful past learning is causing us to perceive threats where there may not be any danger.
Emotional abuse can result in effects that mirror those of severe traumatic incidents. All forms of abuse can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.
While it's easy to identify physical and sexual abuse, emotional abuse can be hard to see, especially when you're in the thick of it. There are a couple of reasons why it can be so hard to identify. Most of the time this abuse comes in a close relationship, it’s pervasive in the relationship so to the abused person, it seems normal to them. And because it cannot be seen physically, it’s an invisible wound.
There is no bruise or broken bone, so it is dismissed as fake. This is far from the truth. Emotional abuse can include screaming, belittling, gaslighting, manipulating, and any kind of constant pattern that another person uses to break down the person’s sense of self. It destroys self esteem and agency in the other person.
Emotional abuse can also include neglect and a lack of love from others. Emotional abandonment, where a caregiver is physically present but emotionally absent, can lead to emotional trauma.
Emotional abuse takes place in the context of relationships and often involves a parent early in life. This is known as a relational violation and is often referred to as complex PTSD.
Unexpected death of a loved one is the most reported potentially traumatic experience. It may be that after a while the responses being displayed by someone suddenly bereaved are ‘normal’ grief responses common following any kind of death including expected deaths, and which don’t require any sort of specialist care to aid recovery.
For example, feelings of sadness and grief, yearning for the person who died, and crying. But, in some cases, it is not uncommon or unusual to suffer much more than this.
People suffering from these kinds of reactions are likely to have constant and intrusive thoughts that revolve around thinking about the person who died all the time, wanting to be with them, and seeing the person who died everywhere they look.
They may have anxious, depressive or suicidal thoughts. They may suffer phobias and fears associated with the bereavement. For example, not wishing to travel by road if bereaved by a road crash.
People with such reactions may develop addictions or increase addictive behaviors they had before, such as use of alcohol, cigarettes or drugs (legal or illegal). They may suffer weight loss or weight gain. They may have on-going physical reactions such as pains, illness, or manifestations of stress such as stuttering. In these types of situations the grief process would be considered complex and traumatic.
If you’ve ever had a medical emergency and had to spend time in the hospital’s ICU (intensive care unit) you know how scary it can be. The beeping monitors, the barrage of questions from medical staff, the drug-induced wooziness and sleep deprivation, not to mention pain, possibly invasive treatments like a breathing tube and almost certainly concern for your survival – all of this can cause anyone to feel overwhelmed.
The term ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ or PTSD, was originally associated with war veterans. But this mental health problem can affect anyone exposed to a frightening, traumatic and/or life threatening episode (1) and a critical illness certainly falls into that category. In fact at least 10% – and as many as 60% – of patients discharged from an ICU suffer PTSD at some point.
Symptoms can appear months after being hospitalized and may include recurring flashbacks, nightmares and a tendency to avoid situations that might bring back memories of the event. People with PTSD are often anxious and have trouble concentrating, sleeping, interacting with others and enjoying activities – all of which can severely affect their quality of life.
For the divorcee, divorce can be psychologically traumatic because if unexpected, the individual could feel shocked and powerless to the event. The person could also feel personally betrayed by their significant other, leaving confusion, pain, and deep, emotional scarring.
In cases there a person needs to initiate divorce to escape an abusive relationship, trauma can still be present because not only has the person been experiencing abuse or witnessing their children being abused but the abuse typically intensifies during divorce proceedings.
Bullying remains a complicated and devastating epidemic for young people with some reports suggesting that a staggering 28% of US students in grades 6–12, and 20% of students in grades 9–12 have experienced some form of bullying at school. Long-term bullying is associated with a variety of adverse consequences, including depression, anxiety, health complaints, and diminished academic achievement.
Moreover, bullying can contribute to the risk of suicide and substance abuse.
Bullying isn’t just traumatic in childhood, though, and it’s not a passing phase. Research shows bullying and harassment can present as symptoms of PTSD later in life. In fact, one study examining mental health in college students found experiencing bullying to be the strongest predictor of developing PTSD symptoms.