October 2016 Trauma (Part 1): What Is Trauma and What Are Its Effects?

Many words are used outside of their context and definitions and one of them is the word trauma. It is often sprinkled into conversations quite casually; something as small as a social misstep can be described as “traumatic”. At the same time, many people who have experienced actual trauma will often not refer to it as such. In fact, many will never speak about their traumatic experiences at all.

Silencing oneself about a traumatic event is common. The deeper emotions of shame and self-blame often travel alongside of trauma experiences. Additionally, there are very real fears about sharing trauma narratives with others. What will people think about me if they knew that…? What will happen to me (or others) if I share this? Will people believe me? Will I lose my family?

“Keeping quiet” about a traumatic experience is especially true of women who, for a variety of reasons have found that it is better not to talk about it. For example, women rarely use the term sexual assault or abuse to describe a non-consensual sexual experience even when it is clearly about violence and violation and is typically life-altering, to say the least.

What is trauma?

Trauma can be described as both the events of an experience, such as severe neglect, emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse, physical and sexual assault, as well as the effects of those events, which include complex physiological and psychological responses. A deep sense of helplessness, powerlessness, and profound fear are often experienced during the time of trauma and may continue long after the actual occurrence. Examples of trauma events could include sexual or emotional abuse, spousal battering, or witnessing a death or a natural disaster.

What Are the Common Effects of Trauma?

The effects of trauma vary considerably from person to person, depending on a multitude of variables. However, traumatic responses often show up in the following ways:

  • intrusive thoughts and memories, flashbacks;
  • re-experiencing of the event(s);
  • self-harming behaviours;
  • frequent suicide ideation;
  • feeling numb, spacey, “outside” of yourself or your life, or feeling “unreal”;
  • experiencing significant gaps in memory (short-term or long-term);
  • frequent or long-term struggles with depression, hyperactivity, dissociation, and/or anxiousness;
  • long-term physiological complaints (e.g., ADD-HD or IBD symptoms);
  • tumultuous relationships;
  • feelings of deep shame and self-blame;
  • substance misuse for coping with emotional pain;
  • persistent hypervigilance (scanning for danger) and sleep disruptions;
  • feelings of helplessness, fear, stress; and,
  • feeling that you do not have safety or control in your life.

While most people will, at some point in their lifetime, have times when they experience some of the responses on the list, trauma effects are typically more persistent, pervasive, and significant, and they tend to affect the major areas of life (e.g., relationships, employment).

What does trauma therapy look like?

Trauma therapy usually begins with information, since this helps to normalize and understand the experience of trauma and the resulting trauma responses. After establishing safety and stability, the work of creating narratives and processing the emotions and sensations related to the trauma begins.

In Part 2 of the series about Trauma, I will talk a bit more about what happens in actual counselling sessions. In the meantime, my hope is that this brief introduction to trauma and its effects will be helpful to some individuals who are trying to make sense out of a profoundly difficult and often confusing experience.

Peace to you and your household,

Shari van Spronsen, MC, RCC, CCC

Twitter: @gottasecond

Some resources if you are interested in reading more about this topic.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Post-traumatic stress disorder. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association.

Haskell, L. (2008). First Stage Trauma Treatment: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals Working with Women. Toronto, ON: Centre for Addictions and Mental Health.

Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and recovery: The Aftermath Of Violence—From Domestic Abuse To Political Terror. New York: Basic Books.

van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, 19-21. New York, NY: Viking Publishers.

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