If you have ever experienced something that overwhelmed your ability to cope, such as the sudden, violent or unexpected death of a loved one, a natural disaster, or abuse, then you are a trauma survivor. Trauma is something that can happen to anyone, regardless of their age, gender, socioeconomic status, race, or other factors. However, those factors can impact what we find traumatic and our ability to recover from a traumatic experience.
Signs of Trauma
It’s not just the events we experience but our ability to handle them that determines if something is traumatic for us. Also, each person’s reaction to trauma can be different. As a result, it is difficult for an outside person to say what was or was not traumatic for a specific individual. There are certain signs, however, that are commonly seen after a person has experienced a traumatic event. These include:
- Intrusive memories
- Distressing memories of the event
- Reliving the event as if it were happening again (sometimes called flashbacks)
- Nightmares about the distressing occurrence
- Being triggered by things that remind you of the event, such as certain smells, places, people, or sounds
- Not wanting to talk or think about what happened
- Avoiding people, places, and activities that remind you of the event
- Negative thinking
- Thinking badly about yourself or other people
- Losing hope for the future
- Struggling with memory
- Relationship difficulties
- Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy
- Racing thoughts
- Physical and emotional changes
- Feeling emotionally numb or detached
- Always being on alert for danger (also known as hypervigilance)
- Engaging in self-destructive or self-harm behaviors
- Angry, irritable, or aggressive attitude
- Overwhelming guilt or shame
- Difficulty sleeping
Trauma and Mental Health
Trauma can sometimes create mental health issues or make existing mental health concerns worse. While most people recognize that trauma can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it’s not as widely recognized that trauma can also result in:
- Anxiety disorders
- Substance use disorder
- Borderline personality disorder (sometimes called emotional intensity disorder)
Trauma and PTSD
Some people think that trauma automatically leads to PTSD. It is important to remember that a person can have a strong emotional reaction to a difficult event they have experienced without developing a mental health condition. When people receive immediate and appropriate help in dealing with a traumatic event, and they do not repeatedly experience trauma, they are less likely to develop PTSD.
How to Support Trauma Survivors
Thanks to the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study and other work that has been done to understand trauma in recent decades, there is a growing body of knowledge around how people in recovery from trauma can heal and move forward after a difficult event. If you are helping someone cope with trauma, encourage them to:
- Access support and encouragement – traumatized people who become isolated find it more difficult to recover.
- Get professional help – therapists and medication prescribers can help people manage their mental health and develop new coping skills.
- Join support groups – talking to others who have experienced similar difficulties can help a person realize that they are not alone and not at fault for what they experienced.
- Exercise self-care – exercise, good nutrition, sufficient sleep, and fun activities can increase resiliency and happiness.
- Maintain a routine – having a reason to get up each day, things to look forward to, and a sense of accomplishment are important components in recovering from trauma.
- Avoid alcohol and illicit substances – substances might provide short-term relief, but they are likely to cause additional issues.
If you or a loved one have experienced trauma and wish to reach out for professional support, it is important to find providers who understand trauma and respond with compassion. This is sometimes referred to as trauma-informed care. Signs that a program is trauma informed include:
- An understanding that trauma is extremely common and an approach that assumes anyone could be a trauma survivor.
- Explaining why they need to ask potentially sensitive questions.
- Clearly indicating what is going to be happening, especially if they are going to need to make physical contact with the person or ask them to do something that could be uncomfortable.
- Allowing for trusted support people to attend appointments.
- Giving the client permission to stop any process at any time.
- Responding with compassion and empathy if a person declines a procedure.