The Truth About Trauma
Updated: Jan 14
We hear a lot about trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) these days. Websites from Psychology Today to Forbes have had something to say about it, and everyone seems to have their own understanding and interpretation of it.
Because these terms have become so pervasive - and misunderstood - in our culture, as professionals we want to clear up a few misconceptions and shed some light on what trauma is, the types of trauma people can experience, its effects, and the treatments available.
What is trauma really?
In short, trauma is our emotional response to distressing experiences.
While everyone confronts distressing experiences throughout their life, traumatic events are unique in that they are:
often sudden and unpredictable,
often indicate a direct threat to our physical safety, and
events that feel beyond our control, making us feel helpless
Types of Trauma
Because there are a variety of traumatic events, they result in different types of trauma.
Acute trauma is defined as intense distress following a one-time event. Examples of the types of events that result in acute trauma are physical or sexual assault or a car accident.
Chronic trauma, on the other hand, results from events that are repeated or prolonged. The types of events that result in chronic trauma are bullying, persistent domestic violence, prolonged exposure to war and combat, and repeated physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
Complex trauma results from repeated or multiple traumatic events which are impossible to escape from, leaving a person feeling trapped. Examples of the types of situations resulting in complex trauma are human trafficking, incest, and long-term physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Chronic trauma is usually characterized by “hypervigilance and constant … monitoring of the environment for the possibility of threat.”
Secondary or vicarious trauma results from exposure to the suffering of other people, and is most often experienced by first responders and medical personnel. Over the long term, it can result in compassion fatigue, the physical, emotional, and psychological toll helping others can take on someone. Caregivers are especially susceptible to compassion fatigue.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) trauma is the type experienced by children prior to developing effective coping skills. These events disrupt normal development and can include the loss of a parent, divorce, neglect, and emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.
Effects of Trauma
Naturally, the effects of trauma are as varied as the types of trauma themselves. Because traumatic experiences undermine our sense of safety in the world, they cause a reaction in a part of our brain called the amygdala, activating our fight-flight-freeze response. In the short term, trauma causes fear, anxiety, aggression, and shock. Over the long term, it can lead to extreme anxiety, anger, sadness, survivor’s guilt, disassociation, and PTSD.
Eventually, these effects spill over into our relationships with everyone around us, especially the people we love. These negative feelings influence how we relate to our partners, our children, our friendships, and our coworkers.
Because our minds and bodies are inextricably linked, these emotions also take a toll on our physical health, leading to exhaustion, headaches, lethargy, depression, and anxiety, while also increasing our risk for other ailments like heart disease, diabetes, and other serious health concerns.
Treatment of Trauma
Thankfully, there are a variety of treatments for overcoming the effects of trauma.
The most foundational ones are lifestyle changes and self-care, including being patient with yourself and giving yourself time to heal. It’s especially important to seek encouragement and help from those close to us and from other support groups.
Because trauma often results in unhealthy and destructive behaviors, it’s essential to begin changing our lifestyle to include healthy eating, exercising, avoiding alcohol and other drugs, getting enough sleep, and emphasizing self-care.
Using these changes as a foundation helps to increase the effectiveness of specific trauma-focused talk treatments, like cognitive processing therapy (CPT), and Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.
Under the guidance of a qualified therapist, CPT, a specific type of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), helps patients challenge and reframe certain beliefs about their trauma. At the most basic level, CPT helps you change your thoughts and, consequently, change how you feel.
EMDR, on the other hand, is a type of therapy that uses “bilateral stimulation” - a technique where you follow a clinician's hand or other side to side motions including stimulation or tapping at a prescribed pace and duration. While following the clinician’s guidance, you’ll recall the event and explore it with your clinician in a way that is safe and will eventually feel less upsetting.
The bilateral stimulation can also be accomplished through “tapping,” where you will tap on yourself, in a similar way you would follow the clinician’s hand. Both techniques target the same part of the brain, resulting in the same effects. EMDR can be used within a talk therapy session with your regular therapist, if they are trained, or with a different clinician specially trained in EMDR in conjunction with your regular sessions.
In future posts, we will continue to explore trauma and, specifically, EMDR more deeply. Additionally, we have several clinicians specifically trained for this specialty area of practice. If you would like to learn more now, please contact Gooding Wellness Group.
Because our goal is to provide you with the right treatment - not just any treatment - our staff is trained in trauma-focused therapy, EMDR, and other specialties and modalities.
Recovering from trauma can be difficult but not impossible. No one has to suffer alone.
Director: Gordon Gooding, LCSW Assistant Director: Liana Ross, LMHC