Reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
If you’ve ever been through a stressful event like a car accident, physical attack or even a natural disaster, you may remember the experience vividly.
And you may have experienced a racing heart, trembling hands or a moment during which you froze, unable to think clearly about what to do next.
If you’re here reading this, thankfully you survived. But what happens next? How does your mind recover from experiencing such events? And is there anything you can do to help heal from trauma?
Read on to learn more about psychological trauma and how to process it, as well as the steps you can take to recover.
The first thing to know about trauma is that it can be caused by an experience or an event. It is not an illness.
Trauma can happen when you experience the following:
An event when your life was at risk or could have been at risk
A situation when you were at risk of serious bodily harm or injury
Sexual violence, including exploitation, assualt or rape
Additionally, trauma can result from bearing witness to any of the above events, being repeatedly or extremely exposed to the occurrence of such events, or having someone you’re close to experience them.
As you may have deduced from reading the above, the possibilities for experiencing trauma can be pretty broad. Traumatic events can be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence — like experiencing a robbery, or they could be ongoing situations, like having to endure physical or emotional abuse in a long-term relationship.
The reality is that most adults will experience at least one traumatic event at some point in life.
Additionally, everyone will experience trauma differently. Some trauma survivors may experience several trauma symptoms, while others may walk away from a traumatic event that seems to leave no lasting impact at all.
To understand the symptoms of trauma, it’s helpful to know what happens in the brain when a person experiences a traumatic event.
During a traumatic event, the body’s natural response to fear can be triggered, causing what’s known as the “flight-or-fight” response.
When the fight-or-flight response gets activated, two things happen:
The body releases a hormone called cortisol (also known as the stress hormone). Cortisol ensures that the body has energy available to tackle the trauma by allowing glucose (sugar) to be used as fuel for either fighting or taking flight.
The body releases the hormone and neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which puts your brain into a state of vigilance and alertness so you can better assess a traumatic situation.
The purpose of the fight-or-flight response is to focus your body’s resources on giving you the best possible chances of surviving the event that triggered it.
During activation of this response, you may experience:
Flushed facial skin with pale skin elsewhere. During your flight-or-flight response, your body will circulate your blood stores to certain areas, resulting in pale hands and feet, yet flushed skin on your face.
Lowered response to pain. Have you ever seen someone get hit by a car and then hop up and walk away? This is the body’s way of directing your attention away from pain until you have reached a safe area.
Increased blood pressure and heart rate. This is an indication that your breathing has quickened, and that nutrients and oxygen are being delivered to critical muscles.
A sensation of being on edge. Your body will be uniquely prepared to notice and evaluate stimuli in your environment, leaving you with heightened senses.
Dilation of pupils. Dilated pupils mean more light being taken in from your environment — to help you see better.
Loss of bladder or bowel control. You might have seen this one in bullying scenes in movies. It is a normal response to an extremely dangerous situation.
Tension or trembling. The hormones coursing through your body can cause this symptom.
Overall, the flight-or-fight response is a relic from the days when we used to experience danger on a more frequent basis, such as being chased by an animal in the wild.
These days, occurrences are less frequent, but the body’s reaction remains much the same. However, problems arise when a traumatic event causes our flight-or-fight response to trigger in situations that are not dangerous.
And with that, we come to the symptoms of having experienced trauma.
After a person has had a traumatic experience, what can they expect in terms of lasting effects?
The truth is, the majority of people who experience psychological trauma will recover without lasting effects. Whether or not a person experiences ongoing symptoms from having experienced trauma will be determined by a variety of factors, including their own personal interpretation of the trauma, the severity of the event and their biological makeup.
Let’s jump into some of the lasting effects of trauma.
When psychological health issues manifest in your body as physical symptoms, it is known as somatization. This can include conditions like changes in appetite and digestive issues, chronic fatigue, frequent colds and sleep disturbances.
Often, a person who has these trauma symptoms will not notice that the symptoms are related to their emotional trauma, which can put them into a cycle of seeing medical providers only to be told that there is no discernible cause for their symptoms.
In addition, a person may experience continued triggering of their flight or fight response without appropriate stimuli, also known as hyperarousal.
Some people who have experienced trauma will find it difficult to control their negative emotions as a result. These include feelings of sadness, anxiety, shame and anger.
In adults who were mentally healthy before the trauma occurred, this symptom is usually short lived. However, in those who experience the dysregulation on a longer term basis, substance abuse can become a problem as they search for ways to achieve control over their emotions, or even to escape difficult emotions.
Additionally, trauma causes some people to disassociate from their feelings altogether, known as numbing. People who experience this will detach from their emotions, resulting in them appearing apathetic. The lowered emotional response can hide what is really going on, resulting in difficulty in a mental health provider accurately assessing symptoms.
A person experiencing cognitive symptoms of trauma as a lasting symptom may have flashbacks, suicidal thoughts, difficulty making decisions and preoccupation with the traumatic event, to name a few.
In general, cognitive symptoms are a disruption of fundamental beliefs that the person used to rely on to navigate the world. For example, experiencing an assault in a place that was previously considered safe, and no longer wanting to return.
Behavioral symptoms of trauma are hallmarked by social life changes and substance abuse. A person may withdraw from their social life, avoid reminders of the traumatic event, engage in high-risk behaviors and generally withdraw socially.
There are a number of mental disorders that can occur as a result of traumatic memories — falling under the bucket of stress disorders.
You’ve likely heard of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is when a person has overwhelming, negative thoughts and feelings stemming from a traumatic event they experienced. PTSD can include reliving the event, or having lasting intense emotions around it. Related read: PTSD and Erectile Dysfunction
Similar to PTSD is acute stress disorder (ASD). While the symptoms are similar, the difference lies in the fact that ASD will show up within three days to one month following the traumatic event.
Lastly, adjustment disorder happens when a person’s reaction to a traumatic event is outsized in comparison to the severity of the event, and will mostly exhibit as emotional symptoms.
Diagnosis of a stress disorder or any other symptoms of trauma requires evaluation by a mental health provider.
Now that we’ve talked about the causes and symptoms of trauma, let’s jump into the options for treating it.
The good news is that treatment for emotional trauma is possible, and there are a number of available treatment options. As with any mental health issue, the earlier treatment starts, the better.
With this sort of cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as TF-CBT, a mental health provider will start by educating about trauma, and then move toward identifying related emotions. They’ll then provide tips for managing one’s emotional state as well as any false thoughts around the trauma.
For example, some individuals who have experienced trauma may falsely blame themselves for the event.
It’s important to note that TF-CBT is most helpful for children, but can be used for people of any age.
Think of exposure therapy as a gradual reintroduction to the traumatic event so as to reduce its related response.
Since some individuals who experience trauma will heavily change their behaviors in the belief that it provides them protection, the goal here is to return to the sense of safety previously enjoyed by slowly working through the event itself in baby steps.
Typically used for individuals with PTSD, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a way of helping individuals process trauma through a combination of intentional eye movements before recounting the traumatic event.
The most commonly used antidepressant, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are treatment options for individuals with PTSD and trauma-driven anxiety or depression.
These drugs work by helping to regulate negative emotions and control anxiety.
Prazosin is another drug that can help with managing nightmares when taken at bedtime.
It’s important to understand that while traumatic experiences can certainly be disruptive to your everyday life, there are trauma-processing techniques geared toward helping you return to a sense of normalcy.
Proper mental health care is critical for processing your trauma and treating any symptoms associated with it.
One of the first steps to recovering from trauma is seeking help. You can speak to a therapist online and get evaluated for medication and treatment options, and even access group therapy and other mental health resources.
Taking care of your mental health is an important step toward living your fullest life.
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Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.