by Steve Scruggs, Psychologist

You may have had a difficult experience at some point, and find yourself asking- “Was this a trauma?” If you’re not certain, it’s not surprising- even experts can disagree about what constitutes trauma. Therefore  it is helpful to compare and contrast trauma with adversity to understand the distinction better. Everyone faces difficulties and cross cultural workers face much more adversity than most people, e.g., being away from family and friends or adjusting to another culture and language. So what is different about trauma compared to adversity? Essentially, acute trauma is sudden, unexpected, and threatens a person’s life or sense of self. Examples are natural disasters, physical or sexual assault, or other events like an explosion or car accident with serious injuries or fatalities. Chronic trauma is even more devastating, such as repeatedly being abused as a child or ongoing domestic violence.

There is a lot of gray area so it can be difficult to sort out the differences. For instance, some mental health professionals think that dealing with the affair of a spouse is a trauma, while others think it is a type of adversity. I have found that it is most helpful to focus on how the person’s circumstances have affected them than whether or not others would consider it a trauma. No matter the type of event, let’s examine the results of a traumatic experience.

Symptoms of Trauma

Experts have been piecing together the brain science underlying trauma and have found that some parts of the brain shut down during trauma. Although our understanding is still incomplete, there are profound neurological, biological, psychological, and social effects that trauma has on an individual. As a result, a person may begin to have a variety of troubling symptoms like the ones below.

  • Re-experiencing symptoms (intrusive memories, recurring dreams, flashbacks, intense distress at exposure to similar events and physical reactions to exposure of similar events)
  • Increased arousal and reactivity (irritable behavior and angry outbursts, recklessness or self-destructive behavior, constantly being watchful and guarded, exaggerated startle response, concentration problems, sleep problems)
  • Avoidance symptoms (avoiding memories, thoughts or feelings associated with the trauma; avoiding people, conversations or situations that bring on memories)
  • Negative thoughts and mood (Intense negative beliefs about oneself and/or the world, e.g., no place is safe, distorted thinking that causes one to blame oneself, persistent negative emotions such as guilt or anger, lack of interest in things you used to enjoy, feeling distant from others, lack of positive emotions. Although it is less common, some people have an inability to remember key aspects of the event(s) that they experienced)

Obviously, these symptoms cause problems in a person’s life with relationships, work, and/or their personal well-being.

In the aftermath of trauma, situations that were previously considered no big deal may now seem dangerous. For instance, walking outside at night might seem terrifying for someone who has experienced a sexual assault at night. Not surprisingly, the person often interprets these physical and psychological reactions as a signal that there is actual danger, so these situations need to be avoided. Although the person may feel less stressed when they avoid the situation, they do less and less over time as they seek to avoid more and more situations that now feel “dangerous.” While avoidance works well in the short run to reduce our anxiety, it actually makes the impact of trauma worse over time by reinforcing the idea that there is danger in many different everyday situations.

Spiritually, a person may question why God allowed this trauma to occur and question their faith or strength of belief. We all have a desire to understand why a traumatic situation occurred. Unfortunately, we may not think clearly during and after a traumatic event, so people often come to the wrong conclusion about the reasons why it happened, e.g., “God must have been punishing me for some past sin.” This is further complicated by what therapists call “competency” guilt, the idea that if I had acted more efficiently or wisely, I could have kept this traumatic event from happening. Similarly, many victims of trauma experience “moral injury,” a belief that they didn’t act as bravely or ethically as they should have during a traumatic event. As you can see, the challenges that a person faces in the aftermath of a traumatic event are intense.

Treatment for Trauma Related Symptoms

Therapy for trauma often starts by helping the person recognize that they were a victim, not the cause of the traumatic event. Once that occurs, the focus is on a person’s strengths and helping them to recognize that they are no longer a victim, but a survivor with resources and support to reduce the impact of trauma.

It is completely understandable that someone would not want to talk about a traumatic event, perhaps the worst experience of their life! However, research and our experience has shown that when we have the courage to talk about the traumatic event, it really helps us to get better. The other thing that we have learned is that people are stronger than they realize. With the help of a supportive counselor, people can face the difficult memories that seem etched on their minds. Over time, the person realizes that while the trauma was dangerous or overwhelming, the memories stop feeling dangerous as the person talks about them in a supportive environment. Several strategies that have been proven to be effective are used by Olive Tree Counselors. EMDR pairs eye movements and cognitive techniques with the trauma memories to reduce the emotional impact of memories. Cognitive-Behavioral strategies, like Cognitive Processing Therapy and Prolonged Exposure, teach a person to put their memories in context and approach situations that never seemed dangerous before the trauma, but seem dangerous now. Along with addressing the psychological impact of the trauma, counselors at Olive Tree also address spiritual questions that may arise after trauma such as, “Why did God allow this bad thing to happen in my life?” Anyone who has read Job, Lamentations, or the Psalms knows that these questions are not new and are difficult to answer in the midst of suffering. Clients can find support as they address these tough questions and find a path to healing and wholeness.

Do I Need Help After Trauma?

If symptoms of trauma continue to impact you 3-6 months after the traumatic event, research shows that the symptoms are likely to persist without counseling. Therefore, therapy with a counselor with training in trauma treatment is the best option for you. If you are struggling with the effects of trauma, please contact us. We are here to help.

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