An event or series of events that causes stress reactions is considered a traumatic event, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are characterized by feelings of helpless, horror, and fear. Traumatic experiences can affect the survivor, rescue workers, friends and family, people who observed the event in person and even someone who saw a traumatic event on TV. In response to traumatic experiences, individuals may feel numb, frightened, withdrawn and alienated. It can take a long time to heal from trauma, but recovery is indeed possible. There are a variety of coping techniques that can be practiced and therapeutic techniques to try.
Some more common traumatic experiences relate to accidents, sexual or other physical abuse (either witnessing or being victim of), natural disasters, injuries, sudden death of a loved one, a breakup or a humiliating experience. While these all have the potential to cause trauma, the fact of the experience does not make it traumatic, but rather how you it impacts an individual emotionally.
Possible Reactions to Traumatic Experiences
People react to trauma in different ways, some of which are dangerous to their mental and physical health.
Some trauma survivors develop a condition called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. According to the National Institute on Mental Health, PTSD is an anxiety disorder that involves re-experiencing a trauma, avoiding things related to the event and/or previously enjoyed things, and hyperarousal, or being easily startled, being on edge. Anyone who has experienced trauma can get PTSD, but not everyone does. PTSD is an extreme response to trauma.
These are some common reactions to trauma according to the Florida Institute of Technology:
- Psychological distress: feelings of sadness, fear, anxiety, horror or grief
- Emotional difficulties: similar to the symptoms above, may include decreased interest in previously enjoyed activities, feelings of numbness or detachment, feeling helpless, withdrawing or isolating oneself
- Confusion, cognitive difficulties: trouble focusing, thinking, forgetting things
- Re-experiencing the event: many people have flashbacks of the event, intrusive thoughts about it
- Nightmares: having bad dreams about the event, difficulty staying asleep or loss of desire to sleep
- Physical reactions: fatigue and exhaustion even though you’ve slept, restlessness, headaches or stomach aches, digestive problems
- Spiritual crisis: questioning of faith
- Avoidance: avoiding people, places, or things that are reminiscent of the event
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others categorize common symptoms into the categories of cognitive, emotional, physical, and behavioral symptoms.
- Cognitive: poor concentration, confusion, disorientation, difficulty making decisions, memory loss, short attention span
- Emotional: shock, numbness, feeling overwhelmed or lost, fear of harm to self or loved ones, feeling abandoned, volatile emotions
- Physical: nausea, dizziness, lightheadedness, rapid heart rate, gastrointestinal problems, tremors, headaches, fatigue, grinding teeth, pain, jumpiness
- Behavior: suspicion, irritability, arguments with loved ones, withdrawal, excessive silence, increased or decreased eating, changes in sexual desire, substance abuse
Childhood trauma is particularly common, and can affect an individual for a long time, putting them at risk for trauma later in life. According to a newsletter published by James Madison University, more than half of adolescents in the United States have experienced some kind of trauma or event that is potentially traumatic. Traumatic experiences during childhood include but are not limited to maltreatment, witnessing domestic violence, exposure to community violence, being a victim of bullying, witnessing a serious accident or disaster or being a part of one, or the sudden loss of a loved one. Some children show few symptoms of trauma, while others suffer from long-term debilitating symptoms of trauma. According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences Studies, individuals who experienced four or more categories of childhood trauma were at higher risk for substance abuse, suicidal behaviors, depression, difficulties in employment and relationships.
Treatment at Rehab Centers for Traumatic Experiences
There are a variety of treatment options for traumatic experiences, and what works for one person may be ineffective for the next. Traumatic experiences vary significantly in what exactly they are, and how the person reacted and continues to react to them. Treatment differences may also take into consideration aspects like the gender and age of an individual as well as whether or not they experience other mental health issues.
Rehab centers for trauma will likely use one or more of these approaches:
- Individual psychotherapy: This involves meeting one on one with a counselor at regular intervals to discuss the traumatic events, the individual’s reaction to them, and how they can create positive change in your life. According to the Florida Institute of Technology, how this approach is carried out depends on the modality used by the counselor.
- Behavioral therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is an approach that actively involves the counselor and patient. With CBT, ways that the individual conceptualizes the event that impact their emotional state are discovered and modified. Through thinking about the event and subsequently learning relaxation training and restructuring the way the event is thought about. This helps to desensitize an individual’s response to reminders of the trauma, thus reducing the emotional impact.
- Group therapy: Therapy in groups provides a safe, supportive environment in which to discuss traumatic experiences and their effects. This can help eliminate possible feelings of alienation and generally help to normalize reactions to an abnormal event.
- Medication: Trauma can influence the neurochemistry of the body and brain, excessive stress hormones can make concentration and relaxation difficult, and can impair immune system functioning. These imbalances as well as other symptoms of trauma can cause depression or anxiety. Sometimes, anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, or adrenergic agents are prescribed to help individuals cope.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): This is a relatively new treatment which includes exposure to the traumatic memory in combination with bilateral stimulation of the brain by tracking the counselor’s finger or something else with the eyes or listening to alternating tones. What this does is it reduces the emotional and psychological reaction to the memory of trauma and helps the person reprocess their thoughts about the situation.
- Hypnosis: In hypnosis, the individual is inducted into a trance or dreamlike state where they can access the psychological resources they have to help them cope with and understand the trauma experienced.
What You Can Do to Cope after Traumatic Experiences
Dealing with the aftermath of traumatic experiences can be very difficult. In addition to the therapeutic approaches described above, there are things you can do for yourself to help alleviate symptoms of trauma aftermath and to generally make you feel better.
The University of Notre Dame recommends these things:
- Remind yourself that your feelings are normal given the abnormal, traumatic circumstances
- Get plenty of rest, and don’t force yourself to be active when you don’t have the energy
- Talk to people, reach out to friends. If you don’t have anyone in your support system to go to call a crisis line or find professional help from a rehab center or other counselor
- Spend time with or around others
- Don’t make any major life decisions as this will add pressure to yourself
- Do things that feel good such as taking baths, reading, exercising, watching TV – whatever it is that you like to do
- Allow yourself time to cry
It can take a long time to recover from a traumatic experience, and everyone does it at their own pace. There is no way to predict how long it will take before you will stop feeling adverse reactions and other symptoms associated with trauma. At any point in your recovery it is OK to ask for help – you can always find a counselor who can help you feel better.