DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2000) specifically defines a trauma as direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one’s physical integrity; or witnessing an event that involves death, injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of another person; or learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death or injury experienced by a family member or other close associate.
Traumatic experiences often 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 objective facts that determine 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.
Emotional and psychological trauma can be caused by single-blow, one-time events, such as an accident, a natural disaster, or a violent attack. Trauma can also stem from ongoing, relentless stress, such as living in a crime-ridden neighbourhood, prolonged work stress or struggling with cancer.
Commonly overlooked causes of emotional and psychological trauma:
Falls or sports injuries
Sudden death of someone close
Breakup of a significant relationship
A humiliating or deeply disappointing experience
The discovery of a life threatening illness or a disabling condition
Symptoms of trauma may include:
Increased heart rate
Churning stomach - Loss of Libido
Stiff muscles - Loss of appetite
Slight shaking/trembling - re-experiencing of sensory experiences
Difficulty regulating hot and cold
Feeling jumpy, increased startle response
Short tempered, aggressive
Feelings of guilt – repeated ‘what if’ thoughts
Difficulty concentrating - intrusive thoughts
Difficulty with memory
Difficulty forming words
Difficulty making decisions
Avoiding places or actions - or risk taking
Pushing away loved ones
Excessive use of alcohol/drugs
If you have experienced trauma, or are experiencing some of the symptoms of trauma due to events in your life, counselling, psychotherapy and arts psychotherapy can all be useful ways of understanding and coming to terms with what has happened.
Not all potentially traumatic events lead to lasting emotional and psychological damage. Some people rebound quickly from even the most tragic and shocking experiences. Others are devastated by experiences that, on the surface, appear to be less upsetting.
A number of risk factors make people susceptible to emotional and psychological trauma. People are more likely to be traumatized by a stressful experience if they’re already under a heavy stress load or have recently suffered a series of losses.
People are also more likely to be traumatized by a new situation if they’ve been traumatized before – especially if the earlier trauma occurred in childhood.
How to help yourself
Immediately after the incident:
Avoid violent films
Try to eat small portions
Drink plenty of water
Take a warm bath to help the muscles
Try gentle exercise, such as walking
Use deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation
Medium to long term:
Try to return to a routine as soon as appropriate
Ease yourself back to the place of the incident (build this up gradually to desensitise the fight or flight system)
Learn relaxation methods, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness or visualisation techniques
Seek professional support from me - I can help you with some of these techniques
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Sudden Death Support Association
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