Understanding Trauma

Some people may think of trauma as something like a death, a hurricane, or an earthquake. While those things are clearly traumas, they don’t begin to cover the range of experiences that can be traumatic. Some other types of trauma include:

  • Significant illness, surgery, or hospitalization, especially in childhood,
  • Losses of many kinds, such as death of a loved one or pet, loss of friends and secure environment in a move, loss of a significant relationship, loss of options through accident or injury, etc.,
  • Humiliating or deeply disappointing experiences,
  • Abandonment and isolation, especially in childhood,
  • Physical, emotional or sexual abuse,
  • Observing violence, especially among other family members,
  • and many other types of hurtful experience.

One definition for trauma is any event or situation which a person is unprepared to handle. For example if a 4-year-old gets separated from her parents in a mall for a short time, it may be very traumatic; when the same person is 30, getting separated from another adult in a mall would probably be a problem to solve, not a trauma. However, if the 30 year old had the 4-year-old trauma unhealed and stored unconsciously, the 30-year-old experience might cause unnecessary panic.

Some of the features of trauma which tend to make it more likely that they will result in lingering symptoms are:

  • it happened in childhood,
  • the person was powerless,
  • it happened repeatedly,
  • it was a result of cruelty or neglect, especially from a family member or trusted other
  • no one helped at the time or in the aftermath.
  • it lead the person to believe he/she was unworthy, unsafe, or helpless.

When a trauma occurs, once or repeatedly, people react in different ways, all of which are understandable, even if not ultimately useful. People often blame themselves for their symptoms, even though they are actually normal reactions to abnormal events.
Trauma can cause emotional and psychological symptoms, such as:

  • shock, denial, or disbelief,
  • experiencing “flashbacks” related to the trauma,
  • anger, irritability, mood swings,
  • guilt, shame, self-blame,
  • feeling sad, depressed, hopeless
  • confusion, difficulty concentrating,
  • anxiety and fear,
  • withdrawal from others,
  • feeling disconnected and numb,
  • avoiding thoughts and actions related to the trauma,
  • feelings of worthlessness and accepting mistreatment
  • using addictive substances or self-injurious behaviors,
  • etc.

Trauma can also result in physical symptoms, such as:

  • insomnia and/or nightmares,
  • being easily startled,
  • pain or discomfort, often not helped by medical intervention,
  • muscle tension and/or feeling “on edge,”
  • fatigue,
  • experiencing body feelings similar to those during the trauma,
  • etc.

When a person has untreated symptoms of trauma, it often limits the person’s success in areas such as:

  • developing close, satisfying relationships,
  • functioning to full potential in a career,
  • experiencing joy in social interactions,
  • feeling like a worthwhile, valuable person,
  • experiencing a full range of emotions,
  • being able to tolerate situations which remind him/her of the trauma,
  • moderating use of alcohol or other addictive substances,
  • etc.

EMDR therapists are well trained in helping you understand how past experiences which you may not even realize qualify as traumas may still be affecting you. Using EMDR, your therapist can help free you from the lingering effects of trauma and help you regain your full potential for happiness and success.