Sugar Land Counseling Center Blog

An informational series by Sugar Land Counseling Center staff

What is Trauma?

by Nicole Dorsey, Ph.D. 

Licensed Psychologist

April 29, 2017

What is Trauma?

These days, we seem to hear quite a bit about violence in society and we hear a lot about individuals feeling "traumatized" by these events. Every night, the evening news has plenty of stories of violent crimes, car accidents, school violence, and sexual abuse. I hear many people say that they can't even watch the news anymore, because it is too overwhelming. But, you might be wondering exactly what trauma is and how it can affect you. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is an emotional response to a terrible, and often sudden, event. While it is normal to be significantly affected by tragedies that occur in our lives, some people find that their traumatic experience has made it difficult to move on with their lives. In such cases, it is often helpful to seek professional help in order to learn how to cope with this experience.

What are some examples of traumatic experiences?

There are a wide variety of situations that could lead to a traumatic experience, and often involve a situation in which an individual fears for his or her safety, or for the safety of others.

* Sexual Assault or sexual abuse

* Domestic violence or physical abuse

* Natural disasters (hurricanes, flooding, tornados)

* Severe illness or injury

* The death of a loved one

* Witnessing an act of violence

* Vehicle accident

In addition to life-threatening situations, there are other experiences that are so emotionally difficult, that individuals hope to never experience that again, such as a divorce, a major move, or an incident of sexual harassment. Some individuals have felt traumatized by these experiences and might experience many of the same symptoms as individuals who experienced life-threatening events.

Common reactions after trauma (The National Center for PTSD)

The National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) indicates that after going through a trauma, survivors often say that their first feeling is relief to be alive. This may be followed by stress, fear, and anger. Trauma survivors may also find they are unable to stop thinking about what happened. Many survivors often feel that they are constantly "on alert", which causes them to be very sensitive to sounds and sights around them.

Reactions to a trauma may include:

* Feeling hopeless about the future

* Feeling detached or unconcerned about others

* Having trouble concentrating or making

* Feeling jumpy and getting startled easily at sudden noises

* Feeling on guard and constantly alert

* Having disturbing dreams and memories or flashbacks

* Having work or school problems

You may also experience more physical reactions such as:

* Upset stomach or trouble eating

* Difficulty sleeping and feeling tired

* Pounding heart, rapid breathing, feeling edgy

* Sweating

* Severe headache if thinking of the event

* Excess smoking, alcohol, drugs, food

* Ongoing medical problems worsen

You might also have more emotional difficulties, such as:

* Feeling nervous, helpless, fearful, sad

* Feeling shocked, numb, and not able to feel love or joy

* Avoiding people, places, and things related to the event

* Being irritable or having outbursts of anger

* Becoming easily upset or agitated

* Blaming yourself or having negative views of oneself or the world

* Distrust of others, getting into conflicts, being over-controlling

* Being withdrawn, feeling rejected, or abandoned

* Loss of intimacy or feeling detached

Getting help

For some individuals, working through their trauma is simply a matter of time. But, for many people, time alone is not enough. If you find that your symptoms are interfering with daily life activities or they are lasting for longer than you think they should, it might be time to seek outside help. That might simply be allowing yourself to accept help from your friends and family, or to participate in a support group, or to finding someone who can provide individual psychological and/or psychiatric treatment for you. Seeking help does not mean that you are weak. It means that you have made a decision to take back control of your life and your emotions. It is also important to find something that works for you. Some people prefer to work through their problems with a group of people who have similar experiences, while others prefer to meet one on one with a therapist. Even different therapists will have different approaches and everyone responds to treatment differently. You will likely need to make several decisions along the way, such as whether or not medication is right for you. It is important to discuss these decisions with your treatment provider in order to develop the most effective treatment plan for you. It is also important to remember that a traumatic experience is always going to be a part of your life experience. You are not expected to simply forget about what happened to you. However, the goal is for you to be able to continue to live your life in a way that brings you joy and happiness.