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What is a trauma? Types, stages and treatment

Trauma is an emotional reaction caused by a single incident or a series of distressing or traumatic emotional or psychological events, or both. It is not because a person experiences a painful event that he will experience a trauma.

This article will cover the types of trauma a person can experience, the symptoms, the five stages of trauma, treatment and coping options, and when to seek professional help.

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What is a trauma?

When a person experiences a distressing event or series of events, such as abuse, a serious accident, rape or other sexual violence, a fight, or a natural disaster, they may experience an emotional reaction called trauma.

Immediate reactions after a traumatic event include shock and denial, while longer-term reactions can include mood swings, relationship challenges, flashbacks, and physical symptoms. These responses can be concerning for the person experiencing them and for those around them, but they are normal responses to traumatic events.

Although the trauma itself is inevitable and the reactions are normal, they can still be problematic and dangerous. Professional support from a mental health professional such as a psychologist or psychiatrist can help with coping and recovery.

Types of trauma

Trauma can be physical or emotional. Physical trauma is serious bodily injury. Emotional trauma is the emotional response to a disturbing event or situation. Specifically, emotional trauma can be acute or chronic, as follows:

  • Acute emotional trauma is the emotional response that occurs during and shortly after a single distressing event.
  • Chronic emotional trauma is a long-term emotional response that a person experiences following prolonged or repeated distressing events that span months or years. Additionally, complex emotional trauma is the emotional response associated with several different distressing events that may or may not be intertwined.

Emotional trauma can arise from various types of events or situations throughout infancy and childhood, as well as into adulthood.

Types of traumatic events

Traumatic events include (but are not limited to):

Symptoms

Symptoms of trauma can be both emotional and physical. The emotional response can lead to intense feelings that impact a person in terms of attitude, behavior, functioning, and worldview. A person may also experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or adjustment disorder following a traumatic event. It is a disorder characterized by a belief that life and safety are at risk along with feelings of fear, terror, or helplessness.

Psychological symptoms of emotional trauma

Emotional responses to trauma can be any of the following:

  • Fear
  • Incapacity
  • Dissociation
  • Changes in attention, concentration, and memory retrieval
  • Behavioral changes
  • Attitude changes
  • Changes in worldview
  • Difficulty functioning
  • Denial or refusal to believe that the trauma really happened
  • Anger
  • Bargaining, which is similar to bargaining (e.g. “I would do this, or be this, if I could only solve the problem.”)
  • Avoidance, such as ignoring one’s own problems or avoiding emotionally uncomfortable situations with others
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Guilt or shame
  • Blame (including self-blame)
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Emotional numbness

Physical symptoms of emotional trauma

Emotional trauma can also manifest as physical symptoms. These include:

  • increased heart rate
  • Body aches or pains
  • Tense muscles
  • To feel exhausted
  • Nervous or startled easily
  • Nightmares
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Tired
  • Sexual dysfunction, such as erectile dysfunction, difficulty arousing, or difficulty reaching orgasm
  • Appetite changes
  • Excessive Vigilance

Grief and Trauma

Mourning is a feeling of anguish linked to a loss, most often the death of a loved one. However, the loss is not always a death. It is possible to experience both trauma and grief following a distressing event, especially when the event involves the death of a close friend or family member.

A traumatized person can go through the five stages of grief described by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. These steps are:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • To negotiate
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Although the steps are often explained in this order, it is important to recognize that a person can move from one step to another in any order and can repeat or skip steps.

Processing

The effects of trauma can be treated by a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist or therapist.

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is the main treatment option for trauma. There are types of psychotherapy that focus specifically on trauma, such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, which are effective in treating trauma. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a method that involves small, controlled exposures to items related to the traumatic experience to help overcome the trauma.

Treatment plans for people with PTSD regularly include medication to help improve mood and sleep.

In addition to professional support, there are many strategies that can be used to cope with and overcome trauma. Talking and spending time with trusted friends and family members can be helpful. There are also support groups specifically for trauma.

It’s also important to maintain routines, eat regularly, exercise, get quality sleep, and avoid alcohol and drugs. Stress plays a role in trauma, so stress management and relaxation can make a big difference.

When to Seek Professional Help

Although trauma can be a normal response to a distressing situation, sometimes it is important to seek professional help. There are things that can be done to relieve symptoms and provide support to cope and move on in life. Also, without professional help, symptoms can worsen and become life-threatening.

Anyone with symptoms of trauma that affects daily life should seek help from a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health professional. Trauma increases the risk of PTSD, depression, suicide and suicide attempts, anxiety and substance abuse, so it is a serious mental health issue.

Summary

Trauma is an emotional reaction caused by a distressing or traumatic event. This emotional response may be present only during and immediately after a traumatic event, or it may be prolonged. Some traumatic events such as child abuse may be ongoing, or a person may experience complex trauma, that is, exposure to multiple traumatic events.

Symptoms of trauma can be both emotional and physical and include feelings of fear, helplessness or guilt, mood swings, behavioral changes, trouble sleeping, confusion, increased heart rate heart and body aches. It can also become more serious as those who experience trauma can develop PTSD and are at increased risk of suicide.

Treatment is available. A mental health professional can provide psychotherapy and other forms of support to help overcome the trauma. It is important to seek help if the symptoms of trauma are impacting daily life.

A word from Verywell

Experiencing traumatic events and the emotional reaction to trauma is distressing and difficult. If you or someone you know is experiencing trauma, help is available. Reach out to trusted friends and family members for help.

If symptoms are impacting your daily life, if support from friends and family is not an option, or if you need additional support, contact a mental health professional. Through treatment and adaptation, it is possible to overcome trauma.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you have trauma but not PTSD?

    It is possible to experience trauma without post-traumatic stress disorder. When a person experiences a distressing event, they may experience trauma, which is a long-lasting emotional response to that event. PTSD involves flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance of situations related to the traumatic event, and ongoing symptoms of physiological arousal.

  • How do I know if I have emotional trauma?

    Emotional trauma is the emotional response to the experience of a distressing event. This can be diagnosed by a medical professional such as a psychiatrist or psychologist.

    Some signs and symptoms of emotional trauma are feelings of hopelessness, anger, fear, disbelief, guilt, shame, sadness or numbness, mood swings, confusion, disconnection, of self-isolation and experiencing the five stages of grief and trauma.