Dealing with a trauma

What is trauma?

Trauma is a bodily injury that causes a wound or a shock to the system. If a condition is caused by internal bleeding, for example – then this is known as a traumatism. In addition, it can be something which causes a shock to the brain, affecting its emotional state. This is usually referred to as a psychological injury by healthcare professionals. In cases of major trauma, such as multiple injuries that might follow a road traffic accident, for instance, then there may also be psychological damage that is inflicted, too, certainly if someone is incapacitated following such an event. In such cases, both forms of trauma - physical and psychological - will need to be dealt with.

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How does physical trauma differ from psychological trauma?

The first thing to say about physical trauma is that it is usually apparent. Damage to the body will result in pain as well as other common signs, such as bleeding. By contrast, psychological trauma is often unseen. However, it will often manifest itself in certain behaviours – or the lack of them. People who have been traumatised psychologically will sometimes find it difficult to express their emotional well-being, suffer from bouts of anger or moodiness and will also sometimes have bad dreams. A common form of this phenomenon is known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which will mean that a person continues to suffer long after a traumatic event and well after physical traumas can have been expected to heal.

How does trauma affect the brain?

Anyone who has suffered from a traumatic event will be likely to have stress hormones released into their brain. This can make a physiological difference to the brain's make up that takes time to recover from, depending on the levels of stress hormones and the sometimes repetitive nature of the stress itself. During the First World War, so-called shell shock began to be treated as a psychological condition due to the effects on soldiers' brains. Doctors noticed that infantrymen continued to show symptoms well away from the front due to brain problems. In the developing brains of children, psychological issues can be even more acute due to the way a growing brain arranges its own hierarchy. Children who have suffered from trauma may go on to develop disorders in adult life, such as neuroticism, for instance.

Can trauma cause conditions?

As mentioned earlier, if you suffered a trauma in your childhood, it can lead to long-term conditions that first show up, or are still present, in adulthood. It is sometimes difficult to get to the bottom of finding the root cause of a problem since many victims of a childhood trauma have suppressed the memories of what happened. In addition, psychological problems with traumatic events can come out in other bodily ways that might seem unrelated to the trauma itself. Some people develop skin complaints or hair loss as a result of psychological trauma, for example. It can also lead to nightmares and anxiety,

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How can you deal with psychological trauma?

There are many different coping mechanisms that can be acquired to help with psychological trauma and its effects. A lot of this simply means that you should try to spend some time learning about the trauma, and what helps you when it is being triggered. Also, emotional regulatory techniques can be used, such as focussing on grounding thoughts and practising mindfulness of your mental state. Emotional and experiential processing are two other methodologies often used by psychology professionals and counsellors. Talking to others who went through the same thing as you is another thing that might be helpful; both the sharing aspect and the potential advice and coaching you will get.

Why does trauma happen?

There is no single reason that causes trauma to occur. In the physical sense of the word, it is often down to accidents, such as car crashes or falls from height, that cause traumatic effects on the body. In some senses, inadequate preparation or assessment of the risks will be the underlying cause of such accidents, but, there again, no amount of mitigation can prevent all traumatic events from occurring. Bear in mind, too, that some physically traumatic events occur quite deliberately, such as acts of war, for example. In the psychological sense, traumatic effects seem to be observable in nature. Some animals will appear to change their behaviours following a traumatic event as though they are traumatised in the way we understand people can be. Opinions differ as to why conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder occur. Still, they may well be bound up in the natural fight or flight state that all animals go through when there is - potentially, at least - an overload of negative stress hormones, such as cortisol.

Can trauma lead to memory loss?

Both physical and psychological trauma can lead to certain degrees of memory loss, depending on how bad the initial problem was and the nature of the individual concerned. In some cases, it is the psychological effects of a physical injury – especially ones that leave deep scars and take a significant amount of time to recover from – that lead to ongoing problems with memory function. This is what most psychologists would agree is some form of coping mechanism in the brain that shuts out unwanted memories of the events that caused the injury in the first place. That said, severe head injuries can also cause traumatic effects on the cerebral cortex itself. If there are blood clots anywhere close to the parts of the brain that are associated with memory, then both long and short-term memory problems can occur. In most cases, memory function will normalise as the physical injury to the brain is recovered.

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How does trauma affect relationships?

Both single traumatic events and more complex and sustained traumas, such as long-term childhood abuse, can have a severely negative effect on personal relationships. That being said, many people who are in loving relationships will find that their partner helps them to cope with and even recover from the traumatising effects of issues they have previously gone through. In some cases, the psychological effects of traumatic effects will take their toll on a relationship, especially if the person concerned finds it difficult to face up to their problems and turns to drink or drugs as a way of blocking them out. Of course, sometimes couples and even entire families will go through a trauma together, such as an act of violence or the loss of a loved one in unexpected circumstances. Such events are known to have an atomising effect on family life but, equally, the grief can draw people closer together.

Why might you need trauma surgery?

Surgery is one of the most common methods for dealing with severe trauma. This is because other forms of medical treatment - such as drug therapies, for example – take time to start working, whereas a severe injury might need much more rapid attention. Although not all injuries – even severe ones – will require surgical treatment, the most common reasons you will need to see a surgeon include thermal burns, chemical burns, frostbite and injuries that have occurred from breathing in noxious substances. When the body has been penetrated by an object, such as a knife, it may be necessary for a surgeon to intervene to prevent further internal bleeding. Naturally occurring conditions that might require trauma surgery include perforated bowels, acute appendicitis, abdominal abscesses and certain types of hernia.

Will trauma ever go away?

The good news is that traumatised people will often recover. Although it is fair to say that this recovery may never be full, and people will sometimes feel as though they have changed to a degree as a result of what they have been through, recovery is normal. In the physical sense, injuries will heal. Even people who have lost limbs, for example, will find that they can make substantial recoveries as they learn to adjust to their new way of life, perhaps with the help of specialist physiotherapy. In psychological terms, traumatised people will also often find that they are able to overcome some, if not all, of the mental anguish they have been through. Indeed, some people will find that having been through something traumatic makes them have more resilience than they did before, perhaps better able to cope with the problems life throws at all of us. Only in rare circumstances will the effects of traumatic events linger to the degree where no discernible recovery has been made.

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What is situational trauma?

In psychology, situational trauma is a way of describing the stressors that people may suffer from within the context that they are felt. For example, someone who has been through the traumatic effects of war may be able to cope seemingly very well afterwards. However, there may be situations that cause a great deal of anxiety, such as being in an environment where there are loud bangs. Treating this sort of situational condition might mean avoiding going to things like fireworks parties so that exposure to the stressor is lessened. Some psychotherapists also try to deal with these sorts of issues in the reverse manner by exposing their patients to their stressors in a controlled way. This is called aversion therapy, something that is often used to deal with phobic conditions. More generally, however, talking therapies are employed to help cope with the sorts of situations people will find themselves 'being triggered' in.

What is trauma processing?

This is one of the therapeutic techniques that professionals use to help traumatised people. It is important to add that other processing methods are also used, such as cognitive processing and emotional processing, as well as other techniques, like emotional regulation, for instance. However, trauma processing involves a systematic approach to desensitising a patient. Usually, a response activation and counter-conditioning model is followed along with a careful deconstruction of disparity within the patients emotional and reality states. In other words, patients are trained to help themselves by understanding when they feel an emotion that is a result of their traumatised minds and when it is not, the idea being that their trigger points will become less anxiety-inducing.

Can trauma be passed down genetically?

There have been a number of studies that have looked into genetics and the likelihood that a person will become traumatised in later life, and there is virtually no evidence to suggest there is a link. Where people in families have been traumatised seems to have a cultural link rather than a genetic one. For example, people who live in violent neighbourhoods are more likely to be exposed to traumatic events than others. Victims of childhood sexual abuse may go onto becoming perpetrators in adult life, which can lead to false links being made surrounding inheritance. When people are exposed to the stress hormones that are associated with traumatic events, there is no genetic mutation that is known to occur either. Simply put, we don't pass traumatised genes down to our children, but our behaviour may have some impact on them.

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Trauma in summary

Traumatic events can cause both physical and mental scars. In some cases, there will be one or the other, but certain ones have a detrimental effect on both body and mind. Medical doctors may be focussed on the effect of traumatic events on our physical well-being, but it is often left to psychologists, psychotherapists, counsellors and support groups to help traumatised people overcome their mental anguish and to make good recoveries. Of course, some people will spend a lifetime recovering from a severe traumatic event or series of them, and there can be long-term outcomes, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, that they will have to cope with for a long time. That said, people know more about how to deal with these conditions and the everyday stress that might occur with them. As such, it is important to know that help is available if you or someone you know needs it.

One of the keys to understanding the psychological outcomes of traumatic events is that they tend to lead to very strong emotions being released. In some cases, these emotions are felt due to the way the mind processes the events that a person has gone through. However, there are also often physical effects on the brain that also lead to certain emotive states being reached, such as the release of certain hormones. Although these were probably issued by the body as part of a survival instinct that all animals possess to some degree, severely traumatised people seem to have had too much exposure to these natural chemicals. This perhaps explains why one severe traumatic event or a series of smaller-scale ones that occurred over a long period of time can lead to the same long-term outcomes.

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