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Understanding Trauma: Its Impact and Coping Mechanisms.


Trauma


🔎 What is Trauma?

Trauma is an inner psychic injury, a lasting rupture or split within the self due to difficult or hurtful events that overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope effectively.


These psychic injury caused by difficult or hurtful events lodged in our nervous system, mind, and body, lasting long past the originating incident(s), which could be triggerable at any moment; if they remain unhealed.


“Trauma is not what happens to you but what happens inside of you.” — Dr. Gabor Mate

Trauma
All trauma is pre-verbal
  • The psychic wounds we sustain are often inflicted upon us before our brain is capable of formulating any verbal narrative.


  • Some wounds are imprinted on regions of our nervous systems having nothing to do with language or concepts; this includes brain areas, of course, but the rest of the body. They are stored in parts of us that words and thoughts cannot directly access.

 


🔎 Types of Trauma

Trauma can be categorised into various types based on the nature and context of the experience. Different types of trauma may elicit distinct emotional and psychological responses. Here are some common types of trauma:

  • Acute Trauma: Acute trauma refers to a sudden, unexpected event that can be life-threatening or severely distressing. Examples include natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, hurricanes), accidents, or witnessing a violent crime.


  • Chronic Trauma: Chronic trauma results from repeated and prolonged exposure to distressing events or adverse circumstances. This type of trauma often occurs within certain environments, such as ongoing abuse, neglect, or living in war-torn areas.


  • Complex Trauma: Complex trauma involves exposure to multiple and varied traumatic events, typically occurring during childhood or over an extended period. This may include experiences like child abuse, domestic violence, or being raised in dysfunctional family systems.


  • Interpersonal Trauma: Interpersonal trauma results from harmful actions or violence perpetrated by others. This includes physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, bullying, harassment, or human trafficking.


  • Vicarious Trauma: Vicarious trauma occurs when individuals, such as first responders, healthcare professionals, or therapists, experience the effects of trauma indirectly by witnessing or supporting those directly impacted.


  • Developmental Trauma: Developmental trauma is experienced during critical emotional and psychological development stages, often in childhood. Such events can disrupt healthy attachment and emotional regulation.


  • Medical Trauma: Medical trauma arises from distressing or life-threatening medical experiences, such as surgeries, life-saving interventions, or chronic illnesses.


  • Collective or Cultural Trauma: Collective trauma is experienced by groups of individuals who share a common identity, such as cultural, racial, or national trauma resulting from historical events like genocides or wars.


  • Traumatic Grief and Loss: Traumatic grief occurs when individuals experience intense and complicated grief reactions following the loss of a loved one due to traumatic circumstances, such as accidents or violent acts.


  • Disaster Trauma: Disaster trauma refers to the emotional and psychological impact of large-scale disasters, such as terrorist attacks, pandemics, or mass accidents.

It is important to recognise that trauma responses can vary significantly between individuals, and the effects of trauma may manifest differently based on a person’s resilience, support system, and coping mechanisms.

 


🔎 Impact of Trauma

Trauma

Trauma is about a loss of connection to ourselves, our families, and the world around us. This loss is hard to recognise because it happens slowly, over time. We adapt to these subtle changes (loss of connection), sometimes without noticing them. As the lost connection gets internalised, it forges our view of reality: we come to believe in the world we see through its cracked lens.

Losing connection to themselves, their families, and their world impacts individuals' psychological, emotional, physical, behavioural and social well-being. Here are some of the key areas where trauma can have a significant impact:


1. Psychological and Emotional Impact:

Trauma

The emotional impact of trauma can be profound and enduring. Traumatic experiences can trigger intense and complex emotional responses that vary based on the nature of the trauma, an individual’s coping mechanisms, and their support system. Here are some common emotional impacts of trauma:


  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) Trauma survivors may become highly sensitive to stimuli associated with the traumatic event, such as specific sounds, smells, or sights, which can lead to heightened emotional reactions.


  • Substance Abuse: Individuals may turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with overwhelming emotions and numb the pain caused by trauma.


  • Fear and Anxiety: Fear and anxiety are typical emotional responses to trauma. Even in safe environments, individuals may experience constant worry, a sense of impending danger, and hypervigilance.


  • Anger and Irritability: Trauma can lead to heightened levels of anger and irritability. Individuals may feel a strong sense of injustice or have difficulty managing their anger in everyday situations.


  • Depression: Trauma can lead to feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, contributing to depression.


  • Emotional Numbness: Some individuals may experience emotional numbness as a coping mechanism to protect themselves from overwhelming feelings. They may feel disconnected from their emotions and find it challenging to experience joy or pleasure.


  • Flashbacks and Intrusive Memories: Trauma survivors may experience intrusive memories, flashbacks, or nightmares related to the traumatic event. These can be highly distressing and retrigger the emotional response associated with the trauma.


  • Emotional Dysregulation: Trauma can disrupt emotional regulation, leading to sudden and intense mood swings. Individuals may find it challenging to control their emotions, leading to emotional outbursts or emotional numbing.


  • Avoidance: Trauma survivors may engage in avoidance behaviours, trying to escape reminders or triggers of the traumatic event. This avoidance can extend to social situations, places, or activities that may evoke distressing memories.

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2. Cognitive Impact:

Trauma

Trauma can affect cognitive functioning, leading to memory, concentration, decision-making, and problem-solving difficulties. Individuals may experience cognitive distortions and negative thought patterns, impacting their self-perception and view of the world.


  • Memory Difficulties: Trauma can disrupt memory processing, leading to difficulties recalling specific details of the traumatic event or other related information. Some individuals may experience memory gaps or have fragmented memories of the event.


  • Difficulty Concentrating: Trauma can impair an individual’s ability to concentrate and focus on tasks. They may struggle to stay attentive and complete daily activities or work-related responsibilities.


  • Negative Thought Patterns: Trauma can lead to negative thoughts and cognitive distortions. Survivors may have pessimistic beliefs about themselves, others, and the world around them, impacting their overall outlook.


  • Dissociation: In response to trauma, some individuals may experience dissociation, a cognitive defence mechanism where they disconnect from their thoughts, feelings, or surroundings to cope with overwhelming emotions.


  • Emotional Reasoning: Some individuals may use emotional reasoning, basing their beliefs or actions solely on their emotional responses to events rather than objective information.

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3. Physical Impact:

Trauma can significantly impact individuals, affecting various bodily systems and overall health. The physical effects of trauma can manifest immediately after the traumatic event or develop gradually over time, depending on the nature and severity of the trauma. Here are some common physical impacts of trauma:


  • Injuries and Wounds: In acute trauma cases, such as accidents or physical violence, individuals may sustain injuries and wounds requiring medical attention. These injuries range from minor cuts and bruises to more severe fractures or internal injuries.


  • Psychosomatic Pain: Psychosomatic pain refers to physical pain or discomfort influenced by psychological or emotional factors. Psychosomatic pain originates from emotional or mental distress rather than from a direct physical injury or medical condition. Psychosomatic pain can manifest in various forms, and its severity can range from mild discomfort to debilitating pain. Common psychosomatic pain examples include Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), Headaches and Migraines, Muscle Tension and Soreness.


  • Sleep Disturbances: Trauma can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restful sleep. Insomnia and nightmares are common sleep disturbances associated with trauma.


  • Cardiovascular Effects: Trauma can activate the body’s stress response, increasing heart rate and blood pressure. Over time, chronic stress can contribute to cardiovascular issues.


  • Immune System Dysregulation: Prolonged exposure to stress and trauma can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to infections and illnesses.


  • Sexual Dysfunction: Trauma, particularly sexual trauma, can lead to sexual dysfunction and a decreased interest in intimate relationships.


  • Hormonal Imbalance: Trauma can affect hormone levels, leading to hormonal imbalances that may contribute to mood swings and changes in appetite.


  • Weight Fluctuations: Some individuals may experience weight fluctuations due to emotional eating or loss of appetite due to trauma-related stress.

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4. Social Impact:

Trauma

The social impact of trauma can be significant, affecting an individual’s ability to form and maintain healthy relationships and participate fully in social interactions. Trauma can lead to various social challenges, disruptions, and changes in behaviour and social functioning. Here are some common social impacts of trauma:


  • Difficulty Expressing Emotions: Trauma survivors may struggle to express their emotions openly. They may fear being judged or rejected, leading them to suppress their feelings and emotions.


  • Difficulty Communicating: Trauma can impact an individual’s communication ability, leading to misunderstandings and difficulties in expressing their needs and feelings.


  • Social Withdrawal: Trauma survivors may withdraw from social interactions and isolate themselves from others. They may feel a sense of disconnection from the world and avoid situations or people that remind them of the traumatic event.


  • Trust Issues: Trauma can erode an individual’s ability to trust others, especially if the trauma involved interpersonal violence or betrayal. They may have difficulty forming new relationships or trusting those close to them.


  • Avoidance of Triggers: Individuals may engage in avoidance behaviours to protect themselves from triggering situations or reminders of the traumatic event. This avoidance can lead to limited social engagement and reduced participation in activities they once enjoyed.


  • Changes in Social Roles: Trauma can disrupt an individual’s social roles and responsibilities, such as being a partner, parent, or friend. It may be challenging for them to fulfil these roles effectively while dealing with the aftermath of trauma.


  • Difficulties in Intimacy: Trauma survivors may experience challenges in forming and maintaining intimate relationships. They may struggle with vulnerability and emotional closeness.


  • Interpersonal Conflict: Trauma-related stress can contribute to heightened emotional responses and interpersonal conflict. Survivors may experience irritability, anger, or emotional outbursts, affecting their relationships.


  • Disconnection from Support Systems: Trauma may result in a disconnection from pre-existing support systems, such as family or friends, due to shame, guilt, or a sense of burden.


  • Impact on Parent-Child Relationships: Trauma experienced during childhood can affect parent-child relationships, as trauma survivors may struggle with parenting challenges due to unresolved trauma.

 


🔎 Impact of Trauma on the Brain

Trauma

Besides, having a significant and long-lasting effect on an individual’s mental, emotional, physical and social well-being. Moreover, trauma can also alter the brain’s structure and functioning.


The brain plays a central role in processing and responding to traumatic events. When an individual encounters a traumatic event, the brain’s stress response system activates. This triggers the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, preparing the body for a “fight-or-flight” response. In acute trauma, this physiological reaction is essential for survival. However, in chronic or repeated trauma, the continuous activation of the stress response can lead to significant changes in the brain.


1. Amygdala

amygdala

The amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure deep within the brain, is responsible for processing emotions, particularly fear and anxiety. Trauma can lead to an overactive amygdala, resulting in heightened emotional responses and hypervigilance.


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2. Hippocampus

Hippocampus

The hippocampus, located in the medial temporal lobe, is crucial for memory formation and consolidation. During traumatic events, the stress response can impair hippocampal function, leading to memory difficulties, such as fragmented or intrusive memories.


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3. Prefrontal Cortex

Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive control centre, is involved in decision-making, impulse control, and emotional regulation. Chronic stress and trauma can weaken the connections between the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions, hindering an individual’s ability to manage emotions and make rational decisions.

 


🔎 Healthy Coping Mechanisms

Coping with trauma is a complicated process requiring patience, time, and support. Trauma can deeply impact a person's psychological, emotional, physical, and social health, which is why it is important to discover effective and healthy coping mechanisms to aid in the healing and recovery process. Below are some coping strategies to consider:

  • Art Psychotherapy: Engaging in art psychotherapy can provide a non-invasive and non-verbal way of expressing and dealing with challenging emotions.


  • Creating a Support Network: Connecting with supportive friends, family members, or support groups can provide a sense of understanding and belonging. Talking to others who have experienced similar traumas can be particularly helpful.


  • Self-Care Practices: Engaging in self-care activities, such as exercise, meditation, yoga, or spending time in nature, can help reduce stress and promote emotional well-being.


  • Mindfulness and Grounding Techniques: Practicing mindfulness and grounding techniques can help individuals stay present at the moment and manage overwhelming emotions.


  • Journaling: Keeping a journal to express feelings and thoughts can provide an outlet for processing emotions and experiences related to the trauma.


  • Limiting Exposure to Triggers: Minimising exposure to triggers or reminders of the traumatic event can help reduce distress and anxiety.


  • Setting Boundaries: Establishing boundaries with others and recognising when to say no can help protect one’s emotional well-being.


  • Engaging in Hobbies: Pursuing hobbies and activities that bring joy and a sense of accomplishment can contribute to emotional healing.

 
✨ Until we work it through, our trauma will keep us stuck in the past, robbing us of the present moment’s riches and limiting who we can be.
 

References

Foa, E., Hembree, E., & Rothbaum, B. O. (2007). Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD: Emotional processing of traumatic experiences. Oxford University Press.


Healing your emotional wounds with Dr. Gabor Mate. (2022, July).


LeDoux, J. (2015). Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety. Penguin Books.


Levine, P. A. (2015). Trauma and memory: Brain and body in a search for the living past: A practical guide for understanding and working with traumatic memory. North Atlantic Books.


McEwen, B. S., & Morrison, J. H. (2013). The brain on stress: Vulnerability and plasticity of the prefrontal cortex over the life course. Neuron, 79(1), 16–29.


Perry, B. D., Pollard, R. A., Blaicley, T. L., Baker, W. L., & Vigilante, D. (1995). Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation, and “use-dependent” development of the brain: How “states” become “traits”. Infant Mental Health Journal, 16(4), 271–291.


 


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