Trauma Effects, Symptoms & Signs

If you have been through a traumatic experience, you may be struggling with upsetting emotions, a constant sense of being in danger, or terrifying memories. When bad things happen to an individual, it may take some time for them to overcome the emotional pain and start to feel safe once again. Psychological and emotional trauma is what people experience right after a particularly traumatic event has occurred. These disturbing events can happen once or can be repeated events that completely overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope with the resulting emotions. For some, the feelings caused by a traumatic event appear right away, for others it can take weeks or even years before they begin to experience these emotions. The time it takes for an emotional reaction to a traumatic event depends on the event experienced and the individual themselves.

These stressful events destroy an individual’s ability to feel secure, leaving them feeling helpless and vulnerable. Most often, traumatic experiences involve a threat to a person’s life or safety, but any event that leaves someone feeling alone and overwhelmed can be considered traumatic. It isn’t the actual facts that determine if an event is traumatic; it is a person’s subjective emotional experience of the event. The more threatened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.

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The most typical responses immediately after a traumatic event are shock and denial. Shock is the rapid and intense disturbance of normal emotional states that leaves an individual feeling confused. Denial occurs when an individual does not acknowledge that the event occurred. Once the initial symptoms of shock and denial diminish, additional reactions will vary among individuals. Not all traumatic events cause lasting emotional and psychological damage for everyone. Some people are able to rebound quickly from severely devastating events, while others experience lasting devastation from the same event.

Psychological trauma can lead to serious long-term consequences. It is important that individuals who are suffering from severe traumatic reactions do not blame themselves for their reactions. Instead, they must realize that this is a perfectly normal reaction to such a horrible event. It is not clear why some individuals react so strongly to certain events, but it is very common for trauma victims to blame themselves.

Types of Psychological Trauma

Trauma can be caused by a variety of events. Typical causes for the development of psychological trauma may include the following:

  • Falls
  • Exposure to violence
  • Sexual assault/rape
  • Sexual abuse
  • Sports injuries
  • Extreme poverty
  • Kidnapping
  • Sudden death of a loved one
  • Adult children of alcoholics
  • Vehicle accidents
  • Harassment
  • Domestic abuse
  • Natural disasters – earthquakes, deadly tornadoes, volcanoes
  • Police brutality
  • War or combat injuries

Co-Occurring Disorders

Many individuals who have experienced intense trauma may develop serious co-occurring disorders at some point before or following the traumatic event. These types of co-occurring disorders may include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Alcoholism
  • Substance abuse disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

Factors Affecting Traumatic Experience

There is no set way in which individuals should react to the stress associated with a traumatic event. Everyone reacts to traumatic experiences differently. Factors affecting an individual’s recovery from a traumatic event include the following:

  • Event was completely unexpected
  • Unprepared for the event
  • The severity of the traumatic event
  • Repeated trauma
  • The overall ability for an individual to cope with stressful emotional situations
  • The event was unnecessarily cruel
  • The trauma occurred in childhood
  • Amount of loss sustained
  • Stressful events which may have preceded the traumatic experience

Risk Factors for Psychological Trauma

There are a number of risk factors increasing the likelihood an individual will suffer from traumatic stress following an event. These include:

  • Heavy stresses
  • Recent losses
  • Feeling unstable and unsafe in the environment
  • Have been traumatized before
  • Serious illness
  • Abuse – sexual, physical, verbal, or emotional
  • Domestic violence
  • Intrusive medical procedures
  • Bullying

If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Symptoms of Psychological Trauma

Many individuals who undergo very traumatic events find themselves facing many different troubling symptoms. The severity of these symptoms depends upon the person, the type of traumatic event experienced, and the emotional support received after the event. Symptoms can be varied and differ from person to person, and are not always experienced in the same way by all individuals. There is no right or wrong way to respond to trauma, your responses are normal reactions to abnormal events. Common symptoms of trauma include:

Mood symptoms:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Shock
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Despair
  • Mood swings
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Self-blame
  • Sadness
  • Panic attacks
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Hopelessness

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Frequent nightmares
  • Insomnia
  • Startled easily
  • Fatigue
  • Edginess
  • Self-medication with drugs and alcohol
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Social isolation
  • Avoiding certain events that may trigger memories
  • Avoiding certain people

Physical symptoms:

  • Insomnia
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Muscle tension
  • Easily startled
  • Aches and pains
  • Exhaustion
  • Nightmares
  • Edginess
  • Agitation
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle tension
  • Dry mouth
  • Tachycardia
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting

Psychological symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Insecurities
  • Repressed memories
  • Dissociation
  • Emotional numbing
  • Constant fear
  • Denial and disbelief
  • Flashbacks – the individual may re-experience traumatic events over and over
  • Emotional detachment
  • Low self-esteem

Effects

Recovery from a traumatic event takes time and everyone heals at their own pace, however if the symptoms are still present after a few months have passed, it is time to seek treatment. If left untreated, traumatic reactions will only get worse over time, possibly leading to even more severe symptoms. Trauma needs to be treated sooner, rather than later, before the effects of the event become so severe that an individual is no longer able to function on a daily basis. These effects may include:

  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Re-experiencing the event
  • Flashbacks
  • Disconnection
  • Emotional numbing
  • Difficulties moving past traumatic event
  • Alcoholism
  • Suicidal thoughts and ideations
  • Intense fear
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Inability to form attachments to other people
  • Avoiding situations that may remind you of trauma
  • Strained interpersonal relationships
  • Death due to suicide
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