Anyone who has been through a traumatic experience can find it difficult to recover fully. It doesn’t matter if the event was recent or occurred a long time ago, even in early childhood…it can still leave you damaged and struggling to cope. You may have feelings of fear or panic, become depressed and unable to relate to people properly or find yourself inexplicably upset or in tears from time to time. Without help, emotional trauma and its aftermath can be a real barrier to having a happy and healthy life. But the good news is that with the right help, these traumas can be dealt with and recovery can take place.
Understanding emotional and psychological trauma
What actually is an emotional or psychological trauma? Trauma, in this sense, is the feelings that are caused by a deeply stressful or dangerous experience. Trauma can continue long after the event itself and its physical or immediate effects are gone. Experiences that can lead to psychological or emotional trauma include being in an accident, military experiences, accidents, illnesses and surgery, the loss of a loved one, a car or plane crash, a relationship break down, a violent attack, domestic abuse or any similarly shocking experience. The degree of trauma that follows is not necessarily in direct proportion to the seriousness or the actual physical harm caused by the event. Each individual will react differently to events and some may be left severely traumatized by an event that leaves another emotionally unscathed. It all depends on the type of personality you have, your life experiences, current situation and state of mind and the way in which you experienced the event. There is no blame or stigma to emotional or psychological trauma, it can happen to anyone.
Causes of emotional or psychological trauma
Possible causes of trauma are given above, but they tend to be compounded if:
- The event was sudden and unexpected
- You felt completely unprepared to face the event
- You felt powerless to stop the event from happening
- The event occurred during your childhood
- The event was the result of intentional cruelty or betrayal by a loved one
- The event happened repeatedly.
- You are under constant stress for a long period of time.
What makes someone vulnerable to emotional or psychological trauma?
Because it is known that people react very differently to cataclysmic or stressful events, it is important to know who may be most vulnerable to suffer from emotional or psychological trauma. It has nothing to do with ‘being strong’ or ‘being brave’. Some of the bravest people can find themselves hit by an overwhelming emotional trauma. There are a number of factors that can predispose a person to suffering emotional trauma.
- If you are suffering a prolonged period of stress (maybe financial, or due to poor living circumstances, for example) you are more likely to suffer emotional trauma.
- If you have suffered emotional trauma in the past (especially if it happened in your early days of childhood) you may be more susceptible to trauma in the future.
- If you are suffering a physical illness at the time of a difficult event you may suffer trauma because your defenses are generally low.
The long term effects of childhood trauma
A person who has suffered an emotional or psychological trauma in childhood is known to be more at risk of suffering from trauma in the future. A child is deeply vulnerable, and an unresolved childhood trauma can affect that person well into their adult life. Events that might act as triggers for childhood trauma include:
- Child abuse (physical, sexual, verbal or emotional)
- Domestic violence (even if it does not directly involve violence to the child)
- Living in an unstable or unsafe situation
- Separation or divorce of parents
- Loss of a parent or parent figure
- Illness and medical/surgical procedures
Recognizing emotional or psychological trauma
Because everyone reacts differently when experiencing trauma, it’s important to be able to recognize the symptoms. There is no ‘correct’ or incorrect’ response to a traumatic event, and one person’s reaction can not be judged against another’s.
Emotional symptoms of trauma
- Fear or anxiety
- Inability to concentrate
- Inability to relax
- Denial or disbelief
- Shock or panic
- Mood swings
- Anger or irritability
- Sadness, depression
- Inability to relate normally to others
- Withdrawal from the world
- Emotional numbness
Physical symptoms of trauma
- Racing heart
- Sweats and alternating between feeling hot and cold inexplicably
- Extreme tiredness
- Agitation and inability to stay still
- Muscle tension
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Startling easily
Although the symptoms of trauma may ease over a passage of time (again, there is no normal length of time over which this may take place) they can lie dormant and resurface in the future, perhaps in response to a period of stress or another traumatic event. Anniversaries of a traumatic event and other events that bring the memories to the surface can also trigger fresh trauma.
The popular perception of grief is that it is a response to the death of a loved one. However, grief can also be a natural human reaction to any significant loss. This loss need not necessarily be that of a person though a death. It can also be the loss of a loved one through divorce or separation, the loss of a parent through family break up, or even a sense of loss of personal security or confidence. If you are experiencing feelings of grief, give yourself time to grieve properly, and make the best use of your support networks of family and friends. Professional help is also available if you feel trapped by grief or unable to cope.
Do you need to seek professional help for emotional or psychological trauma?
The question of whether or not to seek professional help for emotional or psychological trauma is another that must be considered. As everyone is different, and recovery rates vary from person to person, it can be a tough call to know when to ask for help. However, if you are not feeling better after some months, it could be time to do exactly that. You need to look at the effects of your feelings on your normal life. If, after a few months you are not returning to a functioning life, you need help. Take a look at the following symptoms of continuing trauma and see if any apply to you.
- Do you suffer from a severe feeling of depression that keeps returning or just doesn’t ease?
- Is the way you feel affecting your working life?
- Is the way you feel affecting your home life and your relationships with your partner or children?
- Are you still finding it difficult to re establish a normal social life?
- Do you find it difficult to relate to people and to establish new friendships?
- Do you suffer from nightmares, flashbacks or panic attacks?
- Do you find yourself avoiding any mention of the traumatic event?
- Do you feel you are in an emotional void?
- Are you suffering from a loss of self confidence?
- Are you turning to alcohol or drugs to escape your feelings?
How to find a trauma therapist?
Once you decide to enlist professional help you have made the first positive step towards recovery. However, it is important to find the right therapist. Ask your doctor for a recommendation to a trauma specialist. At your first meeting, make sure that you feel comfortable talking honestly to him or her. If not, don’t continue the sessions but seek another therapist. This doesn’t mean that the therapist may not be good at his job, it’s simply that people relate differently to others and it is essential that you are happy and at ease with your trauma therapist.This is all about healing you, the feelings of the therapist are not the issue!
Other questions to ask yourself to ascertain whether or not you have found the best possible therapist for you might be:
- Does he or she listen to you rather than talk most of the time?
- Does he or she take your feelings seriously, or does he belittle or minimize them?
- Does he or she seem to have really grasped the things you are saying?
- Do you feel able to completely trust the therapist?
What does treatment for emotional or psychological trauma involve?
Many people who are suffering from emotional trauma can feel apprehensive about what the treatment will actually involve. If you have been suffering from fears, loss of confidence, difficulty in relating to people or many of the other symptoms of trauma, going to see a therapist can be just another thing to feel afraid of. However, once you know what to expect and understand the way that treatment can help you, the fears recede.
One of the most difficult things to accept about beginning trauma therapy is that you will have to revisit the traumatic event that began the suffering. This can be very frightening for those who have spent months or even years trying to avoid thinking about it. But, rest assured that a professional trauma therapist will set safe boundaries within which to do this. It is a necessary part of the process, because if the event remains unexplored and unresolved the effects can resurface at any time.
The treatment will vary from person to person and therapist to therapist, but it is likely to involve:
- Exploring and processing trauma related events and feelings
- Letting out pent up energy and feelings of fear and anger
- Learning to control emotions and recognize them as natural responses
- Rebuilding trust in others
What type of treatments are there for trauma victims?
Trauma victims may be treated in a variety of ways.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: CBT , while it does not actually treat the psychological effects of trauma, is often very helpful to trauma sufferers. During a course of CBT you will be encouraged to talk through your emotions and to find a healthier way of dealing with them. CBT is often complemented by another type of therapy.
- Somatic Experiencing: Somatic experiencing focuses on physical sensations and helps you to understand how these relate to the emotional trauma. After this, the body’s own healing instincts take over and allow the release of the internalized feelings though the natural responses of crying and other physical release.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR combines some CBT elements with eye movement and rhythmic left to right movements. The therapy is believed to aid the release of deep seated emotions and traumatic memories.
How to help yourself to recover from emotional and psychological trauma
Professional help may or may not be required to help you to a full and lasting recovery from emotional or psychological trauma. However, there are a lot of things that you yourself can do too. It’s important not to expect to recover too quickly, as if you force this you may be ‘papering over the cracks’ which will appear again at some point in the future. Think of it like healing a physical wound. If the wound heals too fast it may lock in an infection which festers below the surface and causes more problems later. Don’t judge yourself or blame yourself. What you are feeling is all a normal part of the process.
Strategies to self help for trauma recovery include:
- Staying connected to friends and family who can act as a support network
- Don’t isolate yourself: spending time with others can help to re establish a sense of normality
- Seek support if necessary. People who could help you include a member of the clergy from your church, your doctor, friends or family members.
- Getting involved in social or sporting activities.
- Joining a support group for survivors of trauma. This removes your sense of being isolated or abnormal. A lot of comfort can be found through interaction with others who have ‘been there’ and understand what you are going through.
- Volunteering. Volunteering not only occupies your body and mind, it can also give you back a sense of self worth.
- Establish a daily routine and stick to it. Make sure it includes pleasurable activities.
- Set yourself manageable goals. If you have a challenge ahead try breaking it down into small, achievable segments so that you can celebrate small triumphs rather than feel defeated by failing to achieve too great task.
- Make sure you do activities that you really enjoy. Smiling and laughing are a great physical way to release emotions.
- Accept the way you feel. If emotions connected to your trauma arise, accept them and allow yourself time to deal with them.
- Try a ‘grounding’ exercise. This can help to calm you during panicky moments and re orientate you to the world around you. Sit on a chair, with your back firmly against the back of the chair and your feet firmly on the floor. Be aware of the support of the chair for your body and of the solidity of the ground beneath your feet.Glance around the room or garden and find six objects that have the colors red or blue predominantly in them. You should begin to feel your breathing becoming calmer, deeper and more regular. Or, go outside into the fresh air. Sit down comfortably on the grass and focus on the support that the ground gives you.
Looking after your health
Taking care of your own physical health is also important in successfully recovering from an emotional or psychological trauma. If you are not in good physical health you will be less able to deal with emotional problems. So:
- Make sure you get the right amount of sleep. Insomnia can be a mark of emotional trauma, but trying to establish a regular sleeping pattern and sleeping for around 8 hours each night will help keep your body and mind in good condition. Remember though, that sleeping too much is as bad as sleeping too little. Try not to retreat into sleep as an escape mechanism. If you have problems getting to sleep, or if you wake in the night and can’t get back to sleep, try breaking the cycle by putting on the light and reading a ‘feel good’ book for a while. This will often send you back to sleep faster than simply lying there worrying about not sleeping!
- Eat healthily. Certain foods are known to combat stress and depression, and these include walnuts, salmon, flax seeds and all foods that are rich in Omega 3 oils. It is also better to eat several small meals per day then to eat larger, less regular meals as this avoids energy slumps and highs. The normal rules of healthy eating apply, so add lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates and fiber, chicken or fish and nuts or pulses. Avoid sugar, but keep a reasonable intake of good fats such as olive oil. Natural foods are far better than processed ones. Steer clear of junk foods which are full of chemicals.
- Take plenty of exercise. Even walking can be a great way not just to stay fit, but to trick your mind into relaxing and feeling more purposeful. If you enjoy sport, go for it…exercise releases endorphin’s which make you feel happier as well as physically better.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs. The relief that these seem to give you is short lived and can cause more problems in the future. Drugs in particular can fuel paranoia, adding to the trauma and emotional disturbance that you are already suffering.
- Minimize stress. There are various things that you can do to minimize stress. Relaxation techniques along with Yoga, Pilates, meditation, chanting or even just simple deep breathing exercises can all help. Having fun relieves stress too, so make room for fun in your life. The simple act of smiling or laughing makes you feel happier and more positive.
How to help someone to recover from emotional or psychological trauma
What if it’s not you who is suffering from emotional trauma, but a friend or loved one? There’s a lot you can do to show your love and support and which will really help them to recover faster and more completely.
- Be patient. Trauma victims can only recover at their own rate, so don’t try to rush things or have unrealistic expectations as this will only pile on more stress.
- Listen to them. Often, the most helpful thing that you can do is to listen to the person and show them that you understand what they are saying. However little experience you may personally have of the way they feel, letting them know that you believe in them totally is important.
- Don’t pressurize a traumatized person into talking if they don’t feel like it. Just let them know you are there to listen…or to sit in companionable silence, anytime they need you.
- Encourage them to socialize. Gentle encouragement to get out and talk to people in social situations, or to take part in activities is very helpful. Again, don’t pressurize, but suggest enjoyable activities when it feels appropriate.
- Give practical support. Just offering to do the shopping, or to pick them up and give them a lift somewhere they want to go is good. Offer to help with the housework, walk the dog or just to keep them company while they engage in daily activities.
- Don’t get upset or angry. The behavior of a victim of trauma may be unpredictable, so if they become unreasonable, angry or upset with you for no obvious reason, don’t take it personally. Understand that this is all part of the problem, and that it will ease in time as they recover.
Trauma in children
Children can react differently from adults, and if you are close to a child who is suffering from emotional trauma, it’s good to know a little more about it. With a child victim, it is vital to let them know that anything they are feeling is OK and normal. It’s also helpful to provide a positive role model by dealing with your own everyday upsets or problems in a calm, rational manner.
- Some children respond to emotional or psychological trauma by regressing into an earlier childhood. A traumatized child may revert to bed wetting, or needing to leave a light on at night. He may also want familiar comforts of babyhood such as a dummy or old teddy bear, long after he had left such things behind. Don’t make a fuss about these things, just accept them and change the sheets or switch on the light while talking comfortingly to him. Never accuse him of being a baby or belittle him in any way.
- A child may feel that he is to blame for the traumatic event in some way, even if this is completely irrational. All you can do in this case is to calm the child’s fears and tell him that he is not at all responsible.
- Many disturbed children find their sleeping patterns disrupted. If they wake in the night or are unable to fall asleep, sit with them, offering whatever comfort objects they need and perhaps talking gently or reading them a story.
- It can help a child who is suffering from an emotional trauma to actively help others in some way. Obviously it depends on the age of the child, but being helpful and active can restore a sense of self worth once more.
To get professional help for emotional or psychological trauma you can go to your own doctor first, who should refer you to the best specialists for your situation. If the trauma is a result of child abuse, the following contacts will offer excellent help and advice.
US and Canada: 1-800-422-4453 (Childhelp) http://www.childhelp.org/
UK: 0800 1111 (NSPCC Childline) http://www.nspcc.org.uk/
Australia: 1800 688 009 (CAPS) http://www.childabuseprevention.com.au/
New Zealand: 0800-543-754 (Kidsline) http://www.kidsline.org.nz/
Worldwide: chworld.org http://www.chiworld.org/