Psychological Trauma: Symptoms, Signs, and Life Impact
Our experiences mold us into the people that we are, and when we go through something traumatic, we can be impacted for the rest of our lives. And this impact is not limited to experiencing physical symptoms, but psychological symptoms as well.
You may have found yourself asking why you feel triggered at specific situations or traumatic memories, and searching for answers in your past. It is easy to brush this off and to say, “I’m sure I’ll be fine”, but it is important to understand the root causes in order to help you move on.
Posttraumatic stress disorder is no joke , and traumatic experiences must be taken seriously in order to escape their negative effects over the long-term.
What is psychological trauma?
Psychological trauma is the impact of a previous event in your life that has resulted in a feeling of being overwhelmed, in danger or isolated. It can have a long-lasting impact on us and may reappear later in life in different forms.
Psychological trauma can disturb or warp the makeup of our minds and how we see the world. It can distort our values and beliefs. Cognitive behavioral therapy tells us that it can also manifest itself in other psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and eating disorders.
We tend to think of psychological trauma as a specific event, however, it can be accumulated across a series of events over the course of years. Examples of events that can cause psychological trauma include:
- An unstable or unsafe environment
- Natural disasters
- Car accidents
- Separation from a parent
- Serious illness
- Intrusive medical procedures
- Sexual, physical, or verbal abuse
- Domestic violence
Different Types of Traumatic Events
One of the biggest challenges of trauma can be to identify or acknowledge it. There is no one-size fits all diagnosis when it comes to traumatic experiences and traumatic stress symptoms.
Events such as natural disasters, car accidents, physical or sexual assault or the death of someone close to you are referred to as acute trauma. They cause an intense amount of stress immediately after the event and can leave a long-lasting impact on the brain.
Along with the survivors of these catastrophic events, those who are first on the ground to respond to them can also suffer secondary trauma. Emergency service workers can also be trauma survivors, and may feel overwhelmed at situations that they are faced with and can “take on” trauma as a result.
Psychological trauma can also come in the form of repeated events over a longer period of time. For instance, physical, sexual or emotional abuse, neglect, domestic violence and bullying are all examples of chronic trauma.
There may be no consistent pattern or severity to these events so it can be easy to brush off as insignificant. Alternatively, this can result in a development of sustained fear and hyperactive behaviours to prepare themselves for a potentially traumatic event.
Adverse childhood experiences can also have an impact on socialisation and development.
This type of trauma can be caused by experiencing/witnessing violence, abuse or neglect in the
home. This could also extend to the community that a child is raised as this environment will have an
equal impact on their development.
Spotting the signs of psychological and emotional trauma
Traumatic events can affect the part of our brain known as the amygdala, which is responsible for our emotions, survival instinct and memory. This is the part of our mind that allows us to manage risks and alerts us when we identify something as a threat.
When it becomes damaged by past trauma it can become overactive and we may begin to see threats in everyday sights and sounds. For example, war veterans that suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder may experience a great deal of fear when hearing loud sounds similar to gunshots. It could just be a firework or a car backfiring, but their brain can instead recognise this as a more drastic situation and react in a more drastic way.
Traumatic events can have a long-lasting impact on us and lead to problems later in life. This can include a wide range of symptoms both that affect our mental and physical health.
Examples of symptoms:
- Respiratory difficulties (such as asthma)
- Poor academic performance
- Substance abuse
- Sexual problems
- Eating disorders
- Sleep disturbance/nightmares
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
The impact of emotional and psychological trauma
Those who experience trauma, whether in a significant relationship involving interpersonal violence or an experience like a serious car accident, may directly or indirectly find themselves experiencing longer-term symptoms. These can go easily undetected however these may have developed because of an event or events.
Breakdown of close relationships
Those who experience trauma can develop hostility towards others based on their previous experiences. They may not even acknowledge the trauma themselves let alone communicate it to others, so their behaviour can seem unjustified and irrational, almost like a mental illness.
Without the right coping skills, something that can be taught by a mental health professional, they may act out at family members, friends or partners for seemingly irrelevant reasons which over time can push others away.
Trauma can also have the opposite effect through social withdrawal. Trauma sufferers may find it difficult to leave the house and go about their daily lives as a result of their heightened sense of fear. They may also experience feelings of shame through these experiences and may not want to discuss their problems with others.
Dealing with complex trauma can feel incredibly overwhelming and difficult to manage. Sufferers may turn to alcohol or drugs in an attempt to “numb” the pain which can have a long-lasting effect on mental and physical health.
Alternatively, some may find themselves developing close relationships with others based solely on their shared experiences of trauma. These relationships are known as trauma bonding and can become unstable, encouraging dependency and further abuse.
Psychological trauma & chronic pain
Psychological trauma can have a long-lasting effect on the body and can even lead to chronic illness. The stress endured by the event or events is held by the muscles of the body and this tension can be difficult to release.
Our minds and bodies are connected, so when our head is telling us that we are feeling stress, it sends signals of pain to alert us. In tandem, the pain that we experience then causes stress.
The vicious cycle of mental and physical or pain hypervigilance creates more suffering for the individual over time as they struggle to relax, sleep and perform day-to-day tasks. Sufferers can also experience painful spasms throughout their body which can leave them exhausted for hours, or sleep disorders.
Look out for early signs of aches or pains and try to establish when you began feeling them. They could be related to certain situations which may have been triggered by previous trauma. Make sure to practice relaxation techniques, take time off work if necessary and prioritise your health.
Managing trauma day-to-day
When we go through physical trauma we go to the hospital, seek professional help and get treatment right away. This approach is the same for psychological trauma, however it is likely to have a longer lasting impact than a broken bone or burns.
Additionally, physical trauma may also lead to psychological trauma, so it’s especially important to be able to spot the signs of trauma and manage it as effectively as possible.
Continuing to connect with others and the outside world
Anxiety is a very common after-effect of a traumatic event. It can leave you feeling isolated and nervous about everyday activities. You may feel lethargic or lose interest in your hobbies and day-to-day life.
Although it may feel overwhelming, it is crucially important to continue to get out of the house and connect with the outside world to gain some semblance of emotional support. The more that we isolate ourselves the harder it is to rebuild ourselves back up again.
Start with small steps; it could just be taking a walk at lunch and taking in nature. Being amongst others even if you don’t speak to them has a hugely positive impact on our minds, and this can help us build up to bigger endeavours. Over time you may feel more comfortable to see friends, family or colleagues which can help rebuild social skills and increase confidence.
Taking baby steps away from your traumatic experience is important. If you feel overwhelmed, take some time to reset and evaluate where you are in your own mind.
The journey to self-love
Psychological trauma can have a huge impact on self-esteem. You may feel inadequate in your surroundings, which can have a knock-on effect in your day-to-day life. Understanding the root cause of these feelings can help manage these feelings better.
Practicing positive affirmations is a great exercise to improve your perception of yourself. You may feel silly telling yourself how great you are, but by repeating this daily routine will aid these thoughts to become reality. Subconsciously, if we tell ourselves that we deserve happiness and that we love who we are then we are more likely to believe it.
Acknowledge the past and your own subjective emotional experience, and look at how it has shaped your present. From there you can begin to build a brighter future where you are able to love yourself for who you are, rather than from your previous experiences.
Taking good care of your health
Looking after your personal health is a great place to start when you may be struggling with your mental health. Chemically speaking, our minds are able to function better when our bodies are well nourished.
This has been proven time and time again by various studies. We are more productive after breakfast, our mood can be much more positive with a balanced diet and exercise releases endorphins which make us feel happy and satisfied.
Review your existing health and look at easy wins to change this. It could be as simple as drinking more water, eating more fruit or going for a run a couple of times a week. Minor changes can make big results and help you manage mood swings or negative tendencies that may have been caused by psychological trauma.
Although a great deal of work has been done in recent years to raise awareness of mental health there is still stigma around this topic. Remember that mental health is not always easy to spot and someone may be suffering in silence. Remind yourself of these mental illness quotes to help raise awareness.
When to seek professional help
Uncovering or dealing with psychological trauma might feel overwhelming and you may not know where to start. Whilst we want to be there for those closest to us, friends, family or partners may not always be able to provide the right type of support for you.
In some cases they may have been the direct or indirect cause of the trauma, so these conversations can be difficult to have and could cause further issues. If you are experiencing symptoms of psychological trauma it may be worth exploring the options of professional help:
Counselling provides a safe space to speak about issues that you are currently facing. By speaking to someone who does not know you or anything about you, you may feel freer to speak about issues or situations that you have not discussed with anyone else before.
All conversations are kept confidential and counsellors are trained to listen non-judgmentally. You may find that by talking through the trauma you may uncover other parts of yourself. This can be incredibly empowering and can help you begin to manage the trauma more effectively. Make sure that you pick the right counsellor for your needs as this can have an impact on the experience.
Psychotherapy is another talking therapy similar to counselling, however it focuses on feelings and experiences as opposed to action and behaviour. This is to help gain a deeper understanding of our feelings and emotions associated with early trauma, which in turn provides more long-term solutions to recurring issues.
This can help with managing psychological trauma. It looks at how past experiences contribute to current behaviours. Psychotherapists use a variety of techniques including counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy to help you work through these issues effectively. It is typically a longer type of therapy which can last for months or even years. This is to help manage the issue effectively and focus on the big picture as opposed to a more short-term solution.
Speak to a psychotherapist before you commit to long-term therapy. It is key for both parties to feel that this is the right solution and that there is a good fit, and most professionals will offer a short intro conversation for little or no charge.
Cognitive behavioural therapy
Cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT helps to understand both how we think and behave. Similar to the other therapies, CBT helps to identify negative thinking patterns that affect our behaviours which could be caused by emotional and psychological trauma.
CBT helps to cultivate new habits whereby you are able to notice these negative thinking patterns or “cognitive distortions” sooner. In turn, you will be able to manage situations more effectively and break the cycle of difficult emotions.
Acknowledging your trauma and sitting with emotion
Sometimes acknowledging the trauma itself can be incredibly difficult and overwhelming, particularly if it was caused by a loved-one or someone who was close to you. It can be hard to accept that a certain person is or was capable of causing harm and you may feel guilt or shame by associating that person with this action.
It may also be hard to actually identify a source of trauma, especially if you have suffered over a prolonged period of time. Our memories can become distorted, and we may reimagine different scenarios whereby we dismiss traumatic events.
In order to begin to better manage this trauma it may be helpful to begin focusing on your present state first, rather than the past.
Identify behaviours about yourself that you may have developed or you are unsure about. For example, you may over-apologise in situations where you don’t need to. Or perhaps you have stopped going places or doing certain things that would previously be no problem to you.
Once you have found this, cast your mind back to when these behaviours began. There may be a clear event that you can relate this to that you may have dismissed or suppressed. Think about how that event made you feel and the trauma-related emotions that you associated with it.
It can be easy to continue to dismiss these events but by allowing your mind and body to acknowledge and feel those thoughts, feelings and emotions can begin the healing process. You may feel overwhelmed so continue to reach out to personal or professional support where possible and make sure that you are in a safe space.
Traumatic events are not things that we choose to participate in, they are something that happens to us. These events can stay with us for a lifetime but do not have to be definitive of our character.
Once we understand the source of psychological and emotional trauma and acknowledge suffering, we get to decide how we shape our own future.