What is Trauma?
Trauma can have different meanings depending on the context. In a medical context, a trauma refers to a physical harm. In the mental and emotional realm, it can take many forms and isn’t always obvious.
Sexual trauma or trauma of near death or violent experiences like combat are more widely known but trauma can also include car accidents, natural disasters, medical complications, amongst other highly distressing experiences. It can take the form of childhood experiences that you may think were normal or even part of life. This could include not having your needs met, with concrete things like food and shelter but it can also include emotional needs like feeling protected and looked after. Trauma doesn’t only apply to our own experiences – it can be something that happened to someone close to you. It can also be repeated exposure to hearing about or seeing someone else’s traumas which is common amongst first responders. No matter the form that trauma takes, it’s impact is what matters. In short, if the event or events was highly distressing and you feared for your or someone else’s life, there’s a good chance that it falls under the category of trauma.
With such an array of traumas, it’s common to think, “what I went through wasn’t so bad compared to what others have experienced”. However, trauma can affect different people in different ways. Your unique experience is what matters.
What is PTSD?
Trauma can have a lasting impact on our emotional and mental states. It’s estimated that 70% of people will experience trauma in their lifetime. Of that 70%, 20% will go on to develop PTSD. PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is one of several conditions that can develop as a result of trauma under the umbrella of trauma disorders. Trauma can also lead to depression, anxiety, phobias, amongst other problems.
Trauma can cloud our judgment and affect how we see the world, other people, and even ourselves. We might begin to avoid things that remind us of the trauma and spend an excessive amount of time thinking about the pain of the trauma. We might find ourselves missing out on our lives and finding it hard to connect with the people we love. We might think, “Why me?” or even, “Why them instead of me?”. There can be shame alongside feelings of helplessness, feeling unsafe or on edge even if there is no identifiable reason, and unexplained fear or anger. Many people develop health conditions like chronic pain, headaches, and fatigue based on the physical sensations of stress. Our lives might become consumed by the effects of these unfortunate circumstances that just won’t go away.
All of these can be symptoms of PTSD or some other trauma-related condition.
Do I Have a Trauma Disorder?
If you are struggling, the best course of action is to seek out professional help. This could be a medical professional such as a psychiatrist, nurse practitioner, or physician’s assistance who is qualified and trained in diagnosing and prescribing medication for psychiatric conditions. It could also be a licensed mental health professional with experience working with trauma. In California, this could include someone with qualifications like LCSW, MFT, PsyD, or PhD alongside training in diagnosing and treating trauma conditions. You can work together to determine if your experience matches the symptoms of PTSD or some other mental health diagnosis. Whatever the case, if you are feeling out of sorts, a professional can help you work through your experiences and find healing and peace.
How Do You Treat Trauma?
There are a number of treatments proven to treat the effects of trauma. Medications can be an effective means to manage mental and emotional challenges alongside talk-based behavioral interventions. Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) and Prolonged Exposure (PE) are two CBT-based therapies clinically proven to treat PTSD and related disorders. CPT entails investigating the impact of the trauma on how you are seeing the world and changing thoughts to more closely match reality. PE is about gradually confronting things you may be avoiding as a result of the trauma including memories of what happened. Both treatments should be done with a trained therapist who will guide you through the process at a pace that is appropriate for you. Trauma can impact your level of tolerance for emotional experiences and your sense of safety so it’s important that you trust your therapist’s level of competence in guiding you at a pace that feels appropriate for you.