If you’ve gone through a traumatic experience, you may be struggling with upsetting emotions, frightening memories, or a sense of constant danger that you just can’t kick. Or you may feel numb, disconnected, and unable to trust other people.
When bad things happen, it can take awhile to get over the pain and feel safe again. But with treatment and support from family and friends you can recover from emotional and psychological trauma. Whether the traumatic event happened years ago or yesterday, you can heal and move on.
Traumatic experiences may involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the situation alone that determines whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.
A stressful event is most likely to be traumatic if:
- It happened unexpectedly.
- You were unprepared for it.
- You felt powerless to prevent it.
- It happened repeatedly.
- Someone was intentionally cruel.
- It happened in childhood.
Emotional and psychological trauma can be caused by single-blow, one-time events, such as a horrible accident, a violent attack, or a natural disaster. Trauma can also stem from ongoing, relentless stress, such as living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, struggling with cancer, or an abusive relationship.
Commonly overlooked sources of emotional and psychological trauma:
- Falls or sports injuries
- Surgery (especially in the first 3 years of life)
- The sudden death of someone close
- An auto accident
- The breakup of a significant relationship
- A humiliating or deeply disappointing experience
- The discovery of a life-threatening illness or disabling condition
- Symptoms of emotional and psychological trauma
Following a traumatic event, most people experience a wide range of physical and emotional reactions. These are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL events.
These symptoms and feelings typically last from a few days to a few months, gradually fading as you process the trauma. But even when you’re feeling better, you may be troubled from time to time by painful memories or emotions — especially in response to triggers such as the anniversary of the event; or an image, sound, or situation that reminds you of the traumatic experience.
Trauma, the Body and the Brain
Trauma disrupts the body’s natural equilibrium, freezing you in a state of hyper arousal and fear. In essence, your nervous system gets stuck in overdrive. Successful trauma treatment must address this imbalance and reestablish your sense of physical and emotional safety.
Trauma also disrupts the functioning of the brain by affecting information processing and the integration of information in different levels and structures of the brain. Because of this, it may be next to impossible to integrate traumatic memories into the present without professional help.
When to seek professional help for emotional or physical trauma
Recovering from a traumatic event takes time, and everyone heals at his or her own pace. But if months have passed and your symptoms aren’t letting up, you may need professional help from a trauma expert.
It’s a good idea to seek professional help if you are:
- Having trouble functioning at home, school, or work
- Suffering from severe fear, anxiety, or depression
- Unable to form close, satisfying relationships
- Experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks
- Avoiding more and more things that remind you of the trauma
- Emotionally numb and disconnected from others
- Unable to regulate your bodily and emotional states
- Are in fight, flight or freeze mode most of the time
- Using alcohol or drugs to feel better
And are experiencing any of the following physical or emotional symptoms:
- Insomnia or nightmares
- Being easily startled
- Racing heartbeat
- Aches and pains
- Difficulty concentrating
- Edginess and agitation
- Muscle tension
- Anger, irritability, or mood swings
- Guilt, shame, self blame
- Feeling sad or hopeless
- Anxiety and fear
- Withdrawing from others
- Feeling disconnected or numb
Successful trauma treatment will include the following:
- Physical, emotional, and intellectual regulation skills – such as body awareness, relaxation, containment, and visualization skills.
- Processing of traumatic memories and feelings
- Discharging pent up “fight, flight, or freeze” energy
- Reestablishing confidence, competence, and connection
Trauma treatment modalities
The most successful trauma treatment protocols include: EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing); body centered modalities such as Somatic Experiencing and Sensory Motor Psychotherapy; and Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Maribeth Nelson, MA, LPC, is an EMDR Level II therapist, has specific EMDR training related to children, and has been using EMDR successfully with both children and adults since 2000.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a form of psychotherapy that was developed to relieve symptoms resulting from disturbing and unresolved life experiences. The approach was developed by Francine Shapiro to resolve the development of trauma related disorders resulting from exposure to traumatic or distressing events such as rape and combat. Research has shown its efficacy in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. It has also been used effectively in a variety of issues such as anxiety, grief and loss, stress management and vicarious trauma, and creating positive internal resources and performance enhancement skills.
EMDR is unique in that it utilizes bilateral stimulation of the brain (either visual, sound, or tactile stimulation) which is coupled with cognitions, visualized images, and body sensations. EMDR also uses dual attention awareness to move between the traumatic material and the current safety of the present moment. This dual awareness prevents re-traumatization from exposure to the traumatic material. The bilateral stimulation appears to decrease the vividness of negative emotions, sounds, and images associated with memories of disturbing events; increases cognitive flexibility; and allows the brain to resume normal information processing.