Trauma is a highly distressing event or series of events that cause a painful emotional response. The extreme stress of a traumatic situation overwhelms your ability to cope. Sometimes you can bounce back from trauma relatively quickly, and other times you need time and support to recover from a trauma.
We often think of trauma as a singular event, such as a hurricane, terrorist attack, or an assault. People can also experience repeated or long-term trauma, like child abuse, violence in relationships, or bullying. Living in an extremely insecure or dangerous environment (poverty, community violence, homelessness, war zone) can also be traumatic.
We all encounter trauma in our lives at one point or another, whether a big event or an personal experience that leaves you feeling severely hurt, scared, or betrayed. Feeling distress after trauma is a normal response, and is not a sign of weakness! These are some of the feelings and behaviors that are common after experiencing trauma:
* Fast heartbeat or breathing
* Uncontrollable shaking
* Sweating or shivering
* Strong anxiety or fear
* Helplessness, powerlessness
* Exhilaration as a result of surviving
* Feeling too much (overwhelmed)
* Feeling too little (numb, detached)
* Difficulty concentrating
* Racing thoughts, especially replaying the traumatic event over and over again
* Memory problems
* Feeling easily startled
* Sleep and appetite disturbances
In many cases, these feelings will come to an end after you return to a safe environment. However, sometimes reaction to trauma can be more intense or long-lasting. This is not your fault, or a sign that you are not strong enough. Experts don’t yet know why some people experiencing the same trauma will develop problematic symptoms and others don’t.
These are warning signs that trauma is not healing on its own:
* Constant distress, never feeling calm
* Severe dissociation (not remembering actions or chunks of time)
* Vivid, intrusive memories or flashbacks
* Avoiding emotions, sensations, or activities that are associated with the trauma
* Changed view of the world (the world is unfair or unsafe, all people are untrustworthy)
* Changed view of self (feeling damaged, broken, doomed, or guilty)
* Increased use of alcohol, drugs, or tobacco
* Self-harm or self-destructive behavior
* Suicidal thoughts
If you are experiencing strong symptoms, if your feelings aren’t changing or getting better after you have returned to safety, or if you are having trouble functioning in your daily life, please talk to a doctor or mental health professional to get help. Unresolved trauma can lead to post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) [http://us.reachout.com/facts/factsheet/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd], or can contribute to development of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.
Everyone has a different style of coping. Some people benefit from talking about what happened, others prefer to process their feelings through art, exercise, laughter. Here are some ideas for coping after trauma: [http://us.reachout.com/positive-coping-strategies]
* Lean on your support system -- connect with friends and family who are good listeners
* Consider a therapy group or peer support group -- it can be healing to talk to others who have experienced trauma
* Talk to a therapist or counselor
* Exercise that gets your heart rate up -- jogging, dancing, biking, sports
* Relaxing yoga, stretching, or massage
* Listen to guided meditations
* Volunteer, do something of service to others
No matter what your response to trauma is, there is some resilience mixed in there too, because you are still alive and looking at this fact sheet and thinking about getting help!
The American Psychological Association defines resilience as:
“The process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress... It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.”
Resilience doesn’t mean you forget about the trauma or you never feel sad or bad or scared again. It means you are able to feel a full range of emotions (joy, sadness, and everything in between) while also continuing to function, going to school or work, connecting with friends and family.
If you have experienced trauma, keep connecting and coping and communicating… you can build resilience and thrive!