In the wake of recent events like devastating hurricanes, flooding, and gun violence, you may be feeling the emotional effects of these experiences, or feeling vicariously through the experiences of your loved ones or friends. These emotions can be confusing and overwhelming, depending on your own personal history and present circumstances. If you’re wondering whether you or someone you love may be traumatized, read on below for a brief introduction to trauma and ways to get help.
Trauma is the body and mind’s reaction to an overwhelming experience that disrupts an individual’s sense of safety. Trauma can occur after one isolated event like a car accident, natural disaster, or sexual assault. Many New Yorkers experienced trauma following the events of 9/11. Trauma can also develop after repeated exposure to distressing events or behaviors, such as physical abuse, witnessing violence in your community or home, or being exposed to violent content while serving in a war.
The emotional and physical reaction to the experience is as unique as the individual who experienced it — no two people experience trauma the same way. However, the symptoms of trauma (as outlined in the diagnosis of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) do tend to cluster in several categories:
- Intrusive thoughts
- Distress from reminders of the traumatic event
- Avoiding trauma-related stimuli after the event, including reminders, thoughts, and feelings
Negative thoughts or feelings:
- Inability to recall key features of the trauma
- Overly negative thoughts and assumptions about oneself or the world
- Exaggerated blame of self or others for causing the trauma
- Decreased interest in activities
- Feeling isolated
- Difficulty experiencing positive feelings
- Irritability or aggression
- Risky or destructive behavior
- Heightened startle reaction
- Difficulty concentrating and sleeping
- Feeling like you are not in your body
- Feeling of unreality in your waking life
Trauma is a fairly prevalent issue, with 7-8% of the general population being diagnosed in their lifetime. However, for a variety of reasons, a large number of people are never diagnosed, and sadly, don’t seek treatment. Advancements in neuroscience and seminal research studies like the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study are contributing greater knowledge about how chronic trauma in both adulthood and childhood impact mental health, and are aiding the expansion of the traditional definition of PTSD to include people with a wider range of experiences.
But what can be done if you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of trauma? No matter the method, the most important thing is establishing a sense of emotional and physical safety. Grounding techniques, which utilize mindfulness and breathing, are useful. A quick and effective grounding technique is to find 3 red things and 3 blue things in your immediate environment.
Psychotherapy is also effective when the relationship increases your sense of safety. You can begin to feel calm and safe with a therapist who is neutral, friendly, and has a calm tone of voice. Eventually, as you tell the story of your trauma, you will experience the healing effects of “reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around [you], feeling that [you] are held in someone else’s mind and heart” (van der Kolk, p.81).
To work with one of our therapists who work well with trauma experiences, click here.
1. van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking.