Understanding Trauma: Types, Reactions, and the Journey to Healing
A trauma is a deeply distressing experience, that may involve the individual directly or as the observer, and that can have long lasting effects leaving emotional, psychological and physical scars. A trauma is not the same as the Acute Stress Response and it does not always evolve into a diagnosis of Post Trauma Stress Disorder (PTSD). In this article, we will explore the nature of trauma, delve into various types of traumas, discuss common reactions, and differentiate between the acute stress response and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Prevalence of Trauma in Canada
Experiencing a traumatic event can happen to anyone, at any age, in any culture, at any time. Traumatic experiences can range from single incidents, ongoing events, or multiple sequential events. A 2018 study by the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect (CIS) estimated that approximately 22 out of every 1,000 children in Canada experienced some form of physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, or emotional abuse. Research into the prevalence of trauma and PTSD amongst first responders found that this group is at a higher risk of developing PTSD compared to the general population. A study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that approximately 10% of firefighters and 20% of paramedics reported symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of PTSD.
There are many different events and life experiences that can cause a traumatic response. Some examples of traumatic events include:
- Physical Trauma: Physical traumas involve bodily harm or injury caused by accidents, violence, or other harmful incidents. Examples include car accidents, physical assault, or sports injuries.
- Psychological Trauma: Psychological traumas result from experiences that deeply affect an individual's mental and emotional well-being, such as childhood abuse and neglect, witnessing violence, or living through a natural disaster.
- Emotional Trauma: Emotional traumas arise from intense emotional distress, often caused by events like the sudden loss of a loved one, betrayal, or a significant relationship breakup. But also moving schools or countries, being abandoned by a parent or the loss of a job.
- Sexual Trauma: Sexual trauma refers to any form of non-consensual sexual contact or assault.
Traumatic events may also be experienced indirectly, such as being the paramedic on duty or driving by the scene of the car accident. Family and friends of survivors may experience secondary trauma by hearing what happened to the survivor. Watching, hearing, or reading about the traumatic event on a news outlet may also affect people differently.
Common Reactions to Traumatic Events
Traumatic events can affect different people differently, although they all have in common that such an event is emotionally distressing. For some people, time and talking about what they have experienced or witnessed may help them to recover on their own.
Common responses to a traumatic event are :
- Emotional responses such as fear, a feeling of dread, numbing of the emotional senses, depressive feelings, anxiety, or panic attacks
- Behavioural responses such as changes in appetite, disruptions of the sleep pattern, lack of motivation for otherwise enjoyed activities
- Physical responses such as nausea, dizziness, or trembling sensations.
- Hyperarousal such as heightened vigilance, anxiety, irritability, and difficulty sleeping or concentrating
- Intrusive memories and flashbacks
People tend to develop their own ways of coping with heavy emotions, and coping with the aftermath of a traumatic event is no exception. It is common for people to drink more alcohol, start doing drugs, or bury themselves in work or school. These behaviours are called "avoidant" behaviours, and although they are a great short-term solution, they will lead to feeling stuck and not help in the long term.
Not all Trauma becomes PTSD
Everyone has a different way of dealing with life experiences, be that positive or traumatic experiences. What defines a trauma for Person A could be a stressful experience for Person B. After a highly stressful experience (such as one of the traumatic events describes above), everyone will have an Acute Stress Response. This is best describes as a normal reaction to a traumatic event, and it is often referred to as the "fight-or-flight" response. The ASR includes symptoms such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, heightened alertness, confusion, sadness, emotional withdrawal, nightmares and flashbacks. The ASR is our brain's way of trying to make sense with what we have just experienced.
The ASR occurs in no less than three days and no more than four weeks after the event. If the symptoms persist beyond the four weeks, a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is possible. The biggest difference between ASR and PTSD is the duration and onset of the symptoms.
Starting the Healing Journey
Building trauma resilience is an empowering journey that involves developing strategies and skills to cope with the traumatic experiences. It is the process of learning to adapt to times of adversity and from trauma responses. Here are some ways individuals can work on building trauma resilience:
- Seek Professional Support: Engaging in therapy with professionals who specialize in trauma therapy can provide valuable guidance and support. Therapists can help individuals develop coping mechanisms, process emotions, challenge negative beliefs, and build resilience.
- Practice Healthy and Positive Self-Care: Prioritizing self-care is crucial for building trauma resilience. Engage in activities that promote physical, emotional, and mental well-being, such as regular exercise, healthy eating, adequate sleep, and relaxation and stress management techniques such as meditation, deep breathing and grounding exercises.
- Build Social Support Networks: Cultivate relationships with supportive and understanding individuals who can provide empathy, validation, and a safe space to share experiences. There are numerous online support groups as well as in-person support groups where you can connect with others who have experienced similar traumas.
- Educate Yourself about Trauma: Understanding the impact of trauma and its effects on the mind and body can empower individuals in their healing journey.
- Practice Self-Compassion: Be kind and compassionate towards oneself during the healing process. Treat oneself with patience, understanding, and self-acceptance.
- Establish Boundaries: Learn to say no to activities or situations that may trigger distress or overwhelm. Prioritize self-care and protect one's emotional well-being.
In conclusion, trauma is a deeply impactful experience that affects individuals in various ways. Understanding the different types of trauma, recognizing common reactions, and distinguishing between the acute stress response and PTSD are essential steps towards supporting survivors and fostering healing. By raising awareness and promoting empathy, we can create a more compassionate and supportive environment for those on their journey to recovery.