What is Trauma?

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Many people associate the word trauma with exposure to a violent, dramatic or overwhelming event such as physical or sexual assault, war, or natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis. While it is certainly true that trauma can result from such sudden and terrifying events, it is also possible for trauma to develop in response to gradual or unrelenting painful emotional and psychological experiences as well. Trauma can also occur within our most important relationships. In children, experiences of abuse or neglect, witnessing or experiencing violence within the family, being separated from caregivers permanently or for long periods of time, humiliation, severe or unaddressed bullying, or lack of support may leave children vulnerable to traumatisation. As adults these individuals may find that early traumatic experiences are triggered or repeated in later life and relationships leading to further traumatisation.

Traumatic experiences can play a major role in shaping our belief systems about ourselves, others and the world. One consequence of this is that survivors often blame themselves, or feel responsible in some way for traumatic events over which, in reality they had little or no control. This can especially be the case if the trauma occurred during childhood.

Whatever its cause, trauma frequently involves the profound violation of our sense of self – of the physical, emotional and psychological boundaries we depend on for our very survival. Sometimes people are not aware that they have even experienced trauma because symptoms can be gradual and insidious, and may not appear for weeks, months or even years after the event. Current research now tells us that trauma may underlie a broad range of problems. When trauma goes untreated it can impact on all aspects of a person, manifesting as a variety of different symptoms that may not seem to bear much relationship to the initial trauma at all. 

Common emotional symptoms of trauma may include increased anxiety, feelings of depression or excessive guilt, powerlessness, shame, hopelessness or isolation. Sometimes people are so affected by a traumatic event/s that they experience the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) including reliving the trauma, being constantly on-guard, avoiding all reminders of the event, and feeling emotionally numb.

For more information on different types of trauma, and where to get immediate assistance click here.

Because the physical and emotional symptoms of trauma are often very distressing, survivors are often forced to rely on a range of addictive and compulsive behaviours in attempts to reduce their distress. Although these behaviours sometimes provide short-term relief, they more often cause increased long-term distress. Common behavioural problems which may indicate the presence of untreated trauma include addictive or compulsive use of drugs, alcohol, gambling, food, sex, or risk taking (such as shoplifting or dangerous driving), relationship seeking, or chronic people-pleasing.

If you believe you or someone you care about may be affected by the consequences of trauma, talking with a Clinical Psychologist trained in the diagnosis and treatment of trauma can help you, or those you care about, to find a way forward.  Contact us at the Psychology, Trauma & Mindfulness Centre for more information or to make an appointment.