What is trauma?
When many of us think of trauma, the images conjured in our minds consist of men in fatigues carrying their wounded brother in their arms or the child victims of a devastating earthquake begging for food.
This is why it’s not usually very useful for medical professionals to ask patients, “Have you experienced trauma?” Usually, patients will deny trauma because they haven’t been a victim of obvious physical abuse, natural disaster, or combat.
But when I ask my own patients whether they’ve ever felt extremely unsafe, felt violated, or been made to feel overwhelmed and powerless, the answers often change. When they learn that the painful experiences that they have faced, the ones that have often haunted them in small and large ways for years, they often feel relief and hope.
Like these patients, many of us fail to recognize the sometimes subtle face of trauma. We’ve learned to associate the word with devastating once-in-a-lifetime incidents that leave us with nightmares and panic attacks.
But trauma often takes dresses in more understated attire. A traumatic experience is any one that leaves a person feeling in extreme distress and that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. The individual often feels powerless and vulnerable.
Taken in this way, many experiences fall under the category of traumatic: losing a job, discovering a parent’s drug use, being bitten by an animal, being coerced into sex, the loss of a sibling, dealing with a disease, being cheated on in a relationship, facing harassment or discrimination, and many more. While the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates the prevalence of trauma to be 50-60% of the population, I suspect the numbers are even higher.
What is okay for one might not be for another
Traumatic experiences are not universal. Each of us has our own level of what psychologists call resilience that can influence how the level of impact that an event might have on us. Factors related to resilience include having positive relationships, healthy self-esteem, and strong communication and emotion management skills. For individuals who may be lacking in these areas, through no fault of their own, events may be perceived as even more devastating and have longer-lasting impacts. If a person’s system is already stressed, it makes sense that he or she would then not have as many resources to be able to cope with a new trauma.
Effects of trauma
We now fortunately have the technology to better understand the impact of trauma on the brain. Any trauma, but especially chronic ones such as repeated abuse or neglect, can actually change the structure and functioning of the brain. Our response system can be significantly altered, resulting in various emotional and physical symptoms that can leave us feeling dysregulated. Some of these include mood swings, nightmares, trembling, confusion, withdrawing from other people, difficulty sleeping, heart racing, and many more.
What psychologists and other researchers are learning is that traumatic experiences in youth can have truly profound long-term consequences if not addressed. Kids who have been traumatized display increased cognitive issues and work problems, show higher levels of social difficulties and disabilities, take poorer care of their health, and even have earlier death on average.
Trauma and body image
Our body image is comprised of a host of complex, interrelated factors. For individuals who have been the victims of trauma, the body can literally and figuratively carry the weight of the psychic pain endured by the individual. Contrary to what mainstream medicine would have us believe, our minds and our bodies are inextricably linked. When an individual suffers trauma, particularly sexual trauma, their sense of the value, function, and dangerousness of his or her body often shifts. This is particularly true for women, according to research. The shame, guilt, betrayal and myriad of other feelings that can result from trauma puts individuals at high risk for body image disorders and eating disorders. Some experts estimate that up to 80% of those with eating disorders have suffered some form of trauma.
The effects of trauma are serious, and even potentially deadly at times, and speak to the importance of getting treatment if one should endure a trauma. Fortunately, treatment does exist and can have incredibly positive effects on a person’s quality of life. While lots of treatment options are available, most include a few key components: education about trauma and the development of symptoms, examination of thoughts, beliefs, and feelings around the experience, the teaching of coping skills. Treatment might involve medication, individual therapy, group therapy, self-help exercises, or other components.