Some shocks or blows that we receive in life leave visible, physical scars—a car accident or surgery can leave our bodies marked in this way. When we speak about trauma, particularly psychological or emotional trauma, we refer to events whose damaging effects are not necessarily this easily seen or talked about. Trauma is a shattering experience that by definition overwhelms our capacity to cope. If you have experienced a trauma or have received a diagnosis of Traumatic Stress Disorder or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), then working with a psychotherapist can help you to manage your distress and find ways to move forward in your life1. Therapy can be a powerful tool for dealing with the after-effects of trauma, whether your traumatic experience was a single event such as an accident or an act of violence, or many accumulated events, as in the case of long-term neglect or abuse.
Definition of Trauma and Traumatic Experience
Traumatic experience disorders our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. It leaves powerful after-effects of severe mental or emotional stress, and often bodily distress. Examples of these effects include confusion, emotional responses that feel misplaced or bigger than they should be, intense arousal of the nervous system (pounding heart, rapid breathing), and also possibly feeling numb or detached. Experiencing trauma may leave you feeling totally overwhelmed. You may have the sense that the disaster will never be over, that you cannot trust others or your own responses anymore, or that you are in danger of injury or death even when there is no evidence for this fear2. Trauma affects both mind and body. The way it impacts us can seriously disrupt our efforts to live a satisfying, meaningful life.
All traumas, whether they are single events or cumulative, involve hard-to-manage thoughts and feelings. Trauma can involve uncontrollable worries and fears about the future, disruptive memories (or flashbacks), and/or the need to avoid certain people or places. You may also experience grief, shame, or anger—or, you may find yourself surprised that you feel nothing at all. Trauma can also involve intrusive thoughts (images or ideas that you cannot get out of your head), disturbed sleep, headaches, or digestive upset. Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder may also show up in your relationships or disrupt the way you interact with others, which can increase the difficult emotions involved. Anxiety and hyper-vigilance (constantly feeling on guard) are common ways of responding to trauma. For example, if you’ve been traumatized, you may confuse the ordinary stresses that are part of life with life-threatening circumstances, which may or may not resemble the original trauma3. You may sometimes even dissociate (a kind of “checking out” from normal thinking, feeling, or awareness).
Treatment of Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Seeing a therapist to address the effects of trauma in your life may involve the following:
- Coming to a safe and confidential space to discuss what is happening
- Listing your symptoms and how they show in your thoughts, emotions, and body
- Finding strategies to manage and decrease these symptoms
- Gradually exploring your history to bring order and understanding to it
- Containing self-destructive behaviour, such as self-harm or addiction
- Helping you to process and contain difficult emotions
- Locating your internal strengths to minimize ongoing distress
- Investigating other possible resources to help in your daily life
Other Psychological Experiences Associated with Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Further Resources for Individuals Who Have Experienced Trauma
Peter A. Levine, Ph.D. Waking the Tiger: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences. North Atlantic Books, 1997.
3McWilliams N. (1994). Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process. New York: Guilford Press↩