What is Trauma?
Trauma is not the event(s) per se, it is what happens inside of us - to our brains, bodies and nervous systems. It occurs in response to exposure to an incident or series of events that are experienced as emotionally disturbing or life threatening with lasting adverse effects on an individual’s functioning, and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being.
Trauma is more widely experienced than what our medical definitions allow for.
One of the impacts of it is that when things happen in the present, our response reflects some past experience.
In fact, most pathologies have their roots in earlier life experiences that are triggered in the present, setting in motion a continuation of maladaptive patterns.
Trauma can occur at any age, however, it has particularly debilitating long-term effects on children’s developing brains and bodies. Adults who experienced trauma in childhood are often 'wired' differently than those who did not. Their brains, primed to deal with nearly constant stress, can struggle to respond appropriately to situations that would otherwise appear normal and non-threatening.
This is because emotions of imbalance such as fear, stress, anger, guilt, pain, compulsive behaviour, self-punishment, and deviant acts become 'built' into the nervous system, immune system, and physiology.
So, when something happens later on in life that has a fearful connotation, that old fear gets triggered. These responses are more 'programmed' than chosen consciously, and we're less flexible in our responses.
What is PTSD?
Signs and symptoms of PTSD
PTSD stands for 'Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder' and is a set of reactions that can develop in people who have experienced or witnessed an incident or series of events that are experienced as emotionally disturbing or life threatening. For instance, this could be a vehicle or other serious accident, physical or sexual assault, war-related events or torture, or a natural disaster such as bushfire or flood.
Many people experience some of the symptoms of PTSD in the first two weeks after a 'traumatic event', and most recover with the help of family and friends. However, a person may be experiencing PTSD if difficulties persist for more than a month after the event.
There are four main types of difficulties, signs or symptoms, experienced by a person who has PTSD.
1) Re-living the traumatic event through unwanted and recurring memories, flashbacks or vivid nightmares eg. intense emotional or physical reactions when reminded of the event including sweating, heart palpitations, anxiety or panic.
2) Avoiding reminders of the event, such as thoughts, feelings, people, places, activities or situations that bring back memories of the event. They may feel numb, empty or detached.
3) Negative changes in feelings and thoughts, such as feeling angry, afraid, guilty, flat or numb, developing beliefs such as “I’m bad” or “The world’s unsafe”, and feeling cut off from others.
4) Being overly alert or ‘wound up’ indicated by sleeping difficulties, irritability, lack of concentration, becoming easily startled and constantly being on the lookout for signs of danger.
When should I seek professional help?
PTSD can affect a person’s ability to work, perform day-to-day activities or relate to their family and friends. A person with PTSD can often seem distant, 'shut-off', or uninterested as they try not to think or feel in order to block out painful memories. This can affect the quality of their relationships with loved ones and others, and the capacity to accept offers of help.
Up to 80 per cent of people who have long-standing PTSD develop additional problems - most commonly depression, anxiety, and alcohol or other substance misuse. These may have developed directly in response to the traumatic event or as a result of the effects of having PTSD.
If you've been struggling for some time with difficulties maintaining healthy relationships, depression, anxiety, and other issues related to emotional regulation - and this is interfering with you enjoying a healthy and meaningful life - it is worth seeking professional help.
Each person has the innate capacity for health and well-being. The cornerstone of treatment for trauma and PTSD involves confronting the traumatic memory and working through thoughts and beliefs associated with the experience as part of a safe relationship with a trained person.
Trauma-focussed treatments aim to effectively reduce PTSD symptoms, lessen anxiety and depression, and improve a person’s quality of life. This can also be effective for people who have experienced prolonged or repeated traumatic events, although treatment may be required for a longer period.