Getting to know trauma
By Ashley Pitts, AMFT
It can be helpful to understand the basics of trauma in order to know if it is playing or has played a role in your life. When trauma is present but unidentifiable, it has a tendency to cause negative symptoms that might seem to exist without a root. In today’s article, the goal is to define trauma, learn how to identify it in your own life, and learn about the options you have to work through it.
In Overcoming Trauma and PTSD, Sheela Raja, PhD (2012), explains that with a traumatic event:
- You experience or witness a situation that involves threat of actual death or serious injury.
- You experience or witness a situation where your physical well-being -or someone else’s- is seriously threatened.
- You react to what you’ve experienced or witnessed with fear, helplessness, or horror.
Trauma is subjective. This means that an event you may consider traumatic may not be considered the same for someone else.
- For example: Let’s say you are standing in a parking lot of a restaurant talking to a friend you just had lunch with. You may be terrified to see a random dog running full speed your way. Your brain may classify this as a situation where your physical well-being is being seriously threatened. Maybe the friend you are standing with is welcoming this dog with open arms and thinks the dog that you see as vicious is nothing more than a precious fur baby. Neither person is invalid with their perception of the dog. This perception is based on each individual’s feelings, opinions, past experiences and more.
Therefore, just because someone else experienced the same event as traumatizing, it may not have been for you. The reverse of this is also true for someone else who experiences something as traumatic.
Now that we have define trauma, let’s look at some examples of common difficult experiences that can result in someone being traumatized:
- Natural Disasters
- Unwanted sexual contact
- Physical assault or threat of assault by someone you know or a stranger
- Examples: Domestic violence or mugging
- Exposure to combat as a soldier or civilian
- Captivity, imprisonment, or torture
- Sudden, unexpected death of a loved one
The next task is to be able to identify it. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What is the difficult experience?
- Ex. Sexual assault as an adult
- Was it experienced or witnessed?
- Ex. Happened to me 3 years ago
- Was my life or safety and/or the life or safety of someone else in danger or threatened?
- Ex. Yes
- How did I react?
- Ex. I felt violated and terrified. I shut down and didn’t tell anyone. I tried to forget that it happened.
- A part of this question is understanding your emotions and symptoms. Often times anxiety, depression, fear, and anger are a result of the difficult experience.
After asking yourself all of these questions and realizing you may have experienced trauma, don’t just stop there. Ask yourself, “What next?”. There are a number of options to help you manage the negative symptoms. When in doubt, seek professional help. You are not expected to know everything and get it all figured out. Talk to your doctor who can refer you to the proper professional. You can even directly reach out to a professional that specializes in treating trauma. Psychology Today is a great resource to help with your search for finding professional help. This is a great first step on the journey of processing trauma and lessening symptoms.