“Walk it off, soldier!” That’s what we tell ourselves when something terrible happens. We try to push back the pain, so we can return to our pre-trauma life. Dwelling on the issue means the bad guys win, right?
Unfortunately, trauma can leave real scars behind. Some of those wounds you can see with your eyes, but others you feel deep in your heart.
If you’ve experienced trauma, you’re not alone. If you’re not sure how to deal with the pain, you’re also in good company.
Research can help you both understand your past and your path forward. This article can help. We’ll cover:
The formal definition of trauma.
Addiction’s link to trauma.
What Is Trauma?
Put plainly, trauma is a response. Something horrible happens, and your brain and body react to that event.
Events that spark trauma are common. An estimated 70 percent of American adults have lived through at least one traumatic event at some point in life. But it’s the response to those events that really matters.
Trauma is subjective. Two people could go through the very same thing, and one could be traumatized, while the other emerges unscathed. Your history, your current mental state, your outlook, and your personality all play a role in helping you to process something disturbing. When those factors combine in the right way, damage can take hold.
We often think of a trauma trigger as something severe, like a rape or an attempted assault. But even small, subtle things can have a huge impact. A fender bender, a fierce verbal argument, or a mild dog bite could be enough to push you over the edge.
Resilience can also vary from person to person. While some can bounce back from trauma relatively quickly even without any help, others struggle for months or even years after the event. That’s rare, as research suggests that less than 2 percent of people who live through trauma develop classic post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), which involves persistent stress. But it can happen.
The risk of harm and your recovery rate can also vary depending on the type of trauma you endure.
Psychological Trauma: An Injury to Your Core
It’s your brain’s job to make sense of what happens to you every day. Some incidents are so damaging that the mind seems stuck and unable to move forward. Psychological trauma may not be visible, but it can be persistent.
Psychological trauma is often sparked by events that are overwhelming or life-threating, such as:
Research suggests that psychological trauma is more likely if the event is:
Caused by a person (not nature).
Ongoing (rather than a one-time issue).
Unpredictable (rather than scheduled).
Deliberate (rather than accidental or impulsive).
Inflicted on a child.
Initiated by an adult or a caregiver.
While the event is unfolding, the mind is overwhelmed with sensation and emotion. Brain cells can’t store the memory properly. That can make you feel as though you’re still trapped in that terrifying moment, even if it’s weeks or months later.
Some people with psychological trauma endure a form of disassociation. Their brain cells are still processing the event, and it hasn’t been pushed into memory. As a result, they may deny that anything bad happened. They simply cannot remember the details due to the damage the trauma caused.
This is especially common in people who endure the next type of trauma we’re about to discuss.
Childhood Trauma: An Injury to Your Innocence
Children are resilient. That’s what parents tell one another when a little one falls from the swings onto the ground. A quick brush of the pants and the child should be ready to sail into the air once more on that same swing. But some events that happen during childhood are so scarring that they cause trauma damage.
When we think of childhood abuse, we often think of sexual assault. An estimated 42 million adults are survivors of such crimes. In most cases, they’re perpetrated by someone the child knows, trusts, and loves. The damage is significant.
But children can also endure a different, but just as damaging, type of abuse. Of the 7.5 million children who live through child abuse, 74.9 percent are neglected, says the American Society for the Positive Care of Children. That means these children may have no food, no medical care, and no housing support. They are raising themselves, and that can be remarkably damaging.
Clearly, children can’t outgrow some memories. They stick, and when they do, these children become adults who may take drastic steps to make themselves feel better — sometimes with catastrophic consequences.
Physical Trauma: An Injury to Your Body
Physical injuries can happen both in childhood and adulthood. When they do, the scars can stretch into the mind as well as the body.
When medical professionals discuss physical trauma, they talk about:
Concussions or other head injuries.
But when survivors talk about physical trauma, they might mention:
Nightmares. They may relive the same event every night.
Avoidance. They may steer clear of places that remind them of the event.
Loneliness. They may be unable to describe their concerns to others even though they want to.
Anger. They may think about life before the injury and feel dismayed that they’re not as healthy as they once were.
Doctors may treat physical trauma with surgeries, wound cleaning, medications, and nutrition. But the emotional impact of that injury can be untouched even though it causes extreme distress.
Rape survivors know emotional trauma can persist. In a study, researchers found that rape survivors have a higher risk of:
Depression or persistent sadness.
Anxiety or general disease.
While their bodies have healed, their minds have not.
Trauma’s Link to Addiction
In every type of trauma we’ve discussed, we’ve mentioned that healing can be difficult. We’ve also said that people often don’t know what to do to make the pain go away. Unfortunately, many people who live with trauma choose to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.
Experts point out that trauma causes a lack of emotional regulation. You feel stressed when you should be relaxed, or you seem tearful for no reason at all. Substance abuse gives the perception of control. When you feel low, you can take something to lift you up. When you feel anxious, you can take something to slow you down.
Unfortunately, substances also alter brain chemistry in lasting ways, and those changes make emotional control even more elusive. You may be unable to feel joy without drugs, and you may feel muted almost all the time.
Many people know that substance abuse doesn’t help to heal trauma. And yet, it’s a common solution people try.
For example, researchers suggest that adult survivors of childhood abuse are 1.5 times more likely to use illicit drugs when compared to adults without that history.
There is a better — and proven — way to move past trauma. It involves therapy.
Treatment Helps You Overcome
Treatment helps you process terrible memories as you cope with situations that remind you of your trauma. The best programs are tailored to your experiences, so your plan might look different than the program a different person follows. But the goal of helping you integrate the past and the future persists.
Your trauma treatment program might include one or several types of therapy, such as:
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). You identify the situations and feelings that remind you of your trauma, and you work with your therapist on skills to help you plan for and cope with these events, so you can deal with them effectively.
Exposure therapy. You’re reintroduced to a thing or a situation that reminds you of your trauma, and you gain control of the thoughts and feelings attached to the memory.
Cognitive processing therapy. This treatment is often used for survivors of sexual trauma. You work with a therapist to change the way you think about what happened, so your stress symptoms can fade.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (neuro-science). You discuss your trauma while you focus on a moving light, a shifting noise, or a hand tap. Researchers suggest that your eye movements in combination with your speech help to reduce trauma symptoms.
Trauma recovery can be lengthy. Experts say that some people recover within about six months of the event, but some people need even longer to heal fully.
Treatment is effective, but there are some people with symptoms that persist despite treatment. For example, researchers found that two-thirds of veterans who complete therapy retain their trauma symptoms.
Don’t get discouraged. While the event may have been over quickly, your brain and body might need time to work through the damage. Your treatment plan may change a few times until you find a combination that’s right for you. Your doctor can help you move forward.
Can Prevention Help?
Once trauma takes hold, it can be hard to get rid of. Focusing on prevention seems wise, as stopping symptoms before they begin could help you eliminate months or even years of pain. If you or someone you love has just experienced a traumatic event, there is a lot you can do to mitigate the damage.
Researchers say that a short course of CBT treatment, delivered right after the trauma, can help to prevent serious symptoms from forming.
While it’s common for people to feel a little sad or jumpy after a traumatic event, serious symptoms deserve a strong response. Signs of danger include:
Nightmares or poor sleep.
Your risk of developing these issues is higher, experts say, if you:
Have a pre-existing mental health issue.
Have experienced another form of trauma in the past.
Are under stress.
Have few close friends or family members to count on.
If you recognize someone you love or yourself in these lists, it’s vital to get help quickly.
Officials Are Fighting Too
When it comes to preventing and treating trauma, you’re not in this battle alone. Experts are also looking for ways to help.
Consider the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Officials there know that wartime experiences can lead to trauma symptoms. They also know that it’s hard for some soldiers to get better even if they’re discharged for their distress.
That’s why the VA is conducting a great deal of research on trauma-informed therapies. That work is well funded. In 2013, for example, $100 million was set aside to support research on trauma therapy and brain injury.
Research done in the military can trickle out to civilians, and it can help doctors understand what solutions work and what should be skipped.
Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies are looking for ways to reduce the amount of violent crime that can result in trauma. Those efforts are paying off.
The rate of violent crime in the United States fell 49 percent between 1993 and 2017. That means fewer rapes, murders, and abductions. If that work continues, trauma rates should also fall.
Recovery Is Always Personal
While reading about trauma’s impact and the recovery process is an important part of your healing, it’s vital to remember that this is a personal process. You’re a unique individual with a past that informs your present. You may have the same path to recovery as others do, or yours may be entirely your own.
The key is to reach out for help when you need it. When it comes to trauma, you can rarely recover alone.
You’ll need the help of your friends, your family, and a therapist to get there. With this team effort, you will improve in time.