What is Trauma?
Trauma results from exposure to an incident or series of emotionally disturbing or life-threatening events that have lasting adverse effects on a person’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
Some situations and events that can lead to psychological trauma include threatened or actual physical or sexual assault, childhood emotional abuse or neglect, acts of violence, disasters, motor vehicle accidents, and finding out that a close family member or close friend was involved in a traumatic event.
Everyone’s reaction to potentially traumatic experiences is different. Some people recover well with the help and support of their loved ones and may not experience long-term problems. On the other hand, some people may have difficulty moving on with their lives and trauma can affect their ability to cope or function normally. Longer-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.
Single-Incident vs Complex Trauma
Single-incident trauma is often associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. On the other hand, complex trauma often causes more significant impacts than those who have PTSD alone.
Although Complex Trauma often occurs due to repeated trauma experienced by a child or young person, it can also occur as a result of experiences as an adult.
Trauma often causes people to be ashamed and feel bad about themselves and prevents them from feeling safe and able to trust people. People experiencing complex trauma often struggle to manage their feelings, leading them to use coping strategies such as alcohol and drug use, self-harm, over- or under-eating or over-working.
Complex trauma can affect people’s relationships and their physical and mental health wellbeing. It usually has impacts that can last a long time. Some people experience trauma throughout their lives.
Trauma symptoms can be experienced at an emotional, physical, behavioural and cognitive level. Below there are some examples.
Trauma recovery is about gaining the ability to live in the present without being overwhelmed by the thoughts and feelings of the past. The guiding principles of trauma recovery are the restoration of safety and empowerment. It is an individual experience that will feel and be different for everyone.
Different supports and approaches can help people on their recovery journey. These include family and friends’ support and trauma psychologist treatment through individual or group sessions. In addition, peer support from other survivors can be beneficial.
Trauma Psychological Treatment
Psychologists are highly trained professionals qualified to diagnose and treat a range of mental health concerns, including complex trauma and PTSD. Trauma treatment with a psychologist may include CBT Therapy, Exposure Therapy, and EMDR Therapy. In addition, body-based approaches such as trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness can help the body and mind reconnect. Sometimes, medication prescribed by a doctor, such as antidepressants, may be helpful alongside trauma-focused psychological methods.
Phases of Trauma Recovery
Trauma recovery is a process. Dr Pierre Janet conceived the phased trauma recovery framework in the late 1800s. Dr Judith Herman outlines the phases in her book Trauma and Recovery (1992).
Phase 1 – Safety and Stabilisation
The first phase is about establishing a sense of safety and developing healthy coping mechanisms to reduce stress and calm the nervous system. Some strategies may include practising mindfulness, meditation, self-soothing and grounding techniques.
Phase 2 – Remembering and Grieving
This phase is about processing the trauma by putting words and emotions to it and making meaning of it. It involves exploring and grieving the trauma-related losses and providing space to express emotions and feelings.
Phase 3 – Reconnecting and Integrating
The third phase integrates traumatic memories with new safety and coping mechanisms learnt. Finally, you start to move forward, regain hope and establish a robust support system by reconnecting with your loved ones and communities.
Recovery is an individual process and will look different for everyone. It is not about forgetting all about the traumatic experience but instead learning to live with it and move forward. Being patient and compassionate with yourself is essential as you move through this healing process.
If trauma symptoms are distressing or impacting your everyday life and relationships, you should seek help from your GP or a psychologist. It is never too late to begin your recovery from trauma.