What Is Trauma?

Most of us have been through — or will go through — some kind of traumatic event in our lifetimes. Unlike day-to-day stresses you can process in the moment, trauma is an overwhelming event or series of events that your body and mind cannot grasp or cope with, such as sexual assault, a natural disaster, living in an unsafe environment, or the sudden loss of a loved one. 

Trauma can happen in a flash and be unexpected and shocking, or it can happen continuously or repeatedly, such as growing up with a parent who can’t take care of you, being bullied at school, or surviving an abusive relationship. 

There is hope and help for trauma and post-traumatic symptoms. Read on to learn about the different kinds of trauma, how it can affect your physical and mental health, and ways to cope and feel better.

If you’re reeling in the wake of a recent event, learn how you can get the support you need.

What Is Trauma?

An emotional or psychological trauma is an experience that makes you feel unsafe or helpless. Some trauma may be physical, such as a car accident or assault, but you do not have to sustain a physical injury to experience emotional trauma. The mental impact of trauma can be just as harmful as — and sometimes harder to recover from than — physical injuries because it can change the way your brain functions, especially when you’ve been hurt repeatedly or at a very young age. 

When you’ve been through emotional trauma, your brain does its best to protect you by constantly scanning for danger everywhere. Treatment for trauma focuses on reteaching your brain that you can support yourself despite the harm you’ve experienced.

Types of Trauma

Many events and experiences can be considered traumatic.

Acute Trauma

Acute traumas are distressing events that happen once and are time-limited. 

Some examples of acute trauma include: 

  • Sexual violence, such as rape 
  • Physical assault 
  • The sudden loss of a loved one 
  • Car accident 
  • Natural disasters and extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and wildfires
  • Mass shootings
  • Terrorist attacks  
  • Sudden major medical issue, such as a serious injury or a traumatic birthing experience  

Complex Trauma

Complex trauma refers to continuous or repeated traumatic experiences. 

Examples of complex trauma include: 

  • Intimate partner violence, including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse from your partner
  • Child sexual abuse and sex trafficking 
  • Being kidnapped or imprisoned 
  • Living in a natural disaster zone 
  • Living in a neighborhood with increased levels of poverty and violence 
  • Being bullied 
  • Facing racism, racial discrimination, and racist violence  
  • Chronic illness 

Secondary Trauma

Witnessing or hearing about a traumatic event can also have ongoing effects on your health. 

Examples of secondary trauma include:

  • Witnessing a parent, sibling, or loved one being abused 
  • Watching videos and reading news about hate crimes or police violence 
  • Working with people who have been through trauma, such as as a first responder or health care provider 

Find tips on how Black youth can take care of their mental health after racial violence.

Sometimes secondary trauma is not taken as seriously as primary trauma, but the pain can be very real and you deserve support for it.

How Can Trauma Affect You?

After a traumatic event, as your mind and body try to process what has happened, you may experience physical and mental health symptoms that can make it hard to get by in relationships and at work and school. There’s no one “right” way to react to trauma, and trauma responses can look very different in different people based on their experiences and the amount of support they get.

Post-Traumatic Symptoms

Common emotional responses to trauma include: 

  • Denial 
  • Numbness 
  • Confusion
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Feeling unsafe or edgy
  • Feeling like you can’t go back to your old life 
  • Feeling like your beliefs in a safe or just world have been shattered
  • Avoidance of things that remind you of your trauma
  • Flashbacks (suddenly feeling like you’re reliving your trauma)
  • Repetitive memories about what happened 
  • Trouble concentrating 
  • Pulling away from others, or having difficulty figuring out how and when to trust people

Common physical responses to trauma include: 

  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Nightmares or night terrors 
  • Feeling low energy or exhausted 
  • Tense and tight muscles 
  • Headaches 
  • Chest pain 
  • Chronic unexplained pain

Trauma Can Sometimes Lead to PTSD

Data suggest that about 6% of Americans will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, at some point in their lives. PTSD is a treatable mental health condition that causes a cluster of distressing symptoms. 

Signs of PTSD can include: 

  • Recurrent, distressing memories, nightmares, or flashbacks that bring you back to the traumatic events
  • Avoidance of people, places, and situations that remind you of the trauma, as well as avoidance of thinking or talking about it
  • Negative mood, hopelessness, and negative thoughts and feelings about yourself (guilt and self-blame) or the world (“no one can be trusted”)
  • Changes in your physical and emotional reactions, such as not being able to sleep, being easily startled, always being on guard, or struggling to manage surges of sadness or anger

If trauma responses make it really difficult to live your life, and last for a month or longer, you could be diagnosed with PTSD. Even if it hasn’t been that long or you don’t meet the criteria for an official diagnosis, you still deserve support if you’re struggling.

Coping with Trauma

The mental and physical responses to trauma can be overwhelming. As painful as it can be, most of us can and do begin to recover, and it is never too soon or too late to get help. You may want to pull away from others or just shake it off, but research has shown again and again that the key to feeling better is getting support from other people — from friends and family to mental health professionals — to face how trauma has impacted you and find a path through it. 

With help from a supportive community, you can begin to process your trauma and learn new skills to cope with its ripple effects. It takes time and it’s not easy, but many survivors will tell you that opening yourself up to the healing process by reaching out for help is well worth the effort. In time, you can find yourself again, build healing relationships, and even discover a new sense of meaning and hope. 

Learn more about how trauma and PTSD can be treated.

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