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how to recognise trauma

People can experience a trauma without realising it. If you have gone through something traumatic, you may be struggling with your emotions, having reoccurring frightening memories, or you may feel a constant sense of danger. This can also make you feel numb, disconnected, and unable to trust anyone, even those closest to you. When bad things happen, it takes time for the pain to heal and for you to feel safe again but with the right treatment; you can soon be on the road to recovery. Whether the traumatic event occurred years ago or recently, you can still heal and put it behind you.

Psychological trauma is a type of damage to the psyche which occurs as a result of a severely distressing event. In Greek, the word trauma means “wound”, it is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds your ability to cope.

Emotional or psychological trauma tend to be a result of extraordinary stressful events that happened unexpectedly, you were unprepared for, someone was intentionally cruel, you felt powerless to prevent it. These can crush your sense of security, which in turn make you feel helpless and vulnerable in a frightening and ‘dangerous’ world.

Traumatic experiences often involve some kind of threat to life or your safety however, any situation whereby you feel overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, and it doesn’t have to involve physical harm. It is not the objective facts of the threat that determine whether an event is traumatic rather; it is your subjective emotional experience of the event. They way in which you process the stressor is critical to whether a trauma will be experienced. The more frightened, overwhelmed and powerless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatised. 

Trauma can be caused by one single event such as, a car accident or a violent attack, or it can stem from ongoing stress, such as living with cancer or within a high crime community.

A lot of traumas can be overlooked for example, people can suffer trauma from

  • A sports injury
  • Having surgery
  • Death of a loved one
  • A car accident
  • A breakup
  • An embarrassing experience
  • The discovery of a life-threatening illness or an illness that will live with you for life.

There can be certain risk factors that increase your vulnerability to trauma. Not all traumatic experiences lead to lasting emotional/psychological damage, some people tend to rebound quickly even from the most shocking of events. However, other people may be devastated by certain experiences that to others may appear to be less upsetting. You tend to be more likely to experience a trauma if you’re already under a lot of stress such as a demanding job or if you have recently suffered a loss. You are also are more likely to be traumatized if you have experienced a trauma beforehand, especially if this trauma occurred within childhood. Experiencing trauma within childhood can have severe, long-lasting effects as the child tends to see the world as frightening or dangerous. If this trauma is not resolved, this fundamental sense of fear carries on into adulthood. The experience may remain dormant until your later years. Examples of childhood trauma are

  • Having an unstable environment
  • Separation from a parent
  • Bullying
  • Sexual, physical or verbal abuse
  • Neglect
  • Intrusive procedures
  • Illness

People react in different ways following a trauma, which creates a vast range of physical and emotional reactions. It is important to note that there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ways to think or react after a traumatic event. So do not judge yourself or other people. Your reaction is NORMAL to an ABNORMAL event.

Symptoms to look out for are

  • Shock
  • Denial
  • Disbelief
  • Anger, irritability, mood swings
  • Guilt, self-blame, shame, feeling sad
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Anxiety / fear
  • Withdrawing from others and from what you would normally do
  • Feeling “numb” or disconnected
  • Insomnia or nightmares
  • Fatigue
  • Edginess
  • Being startled easily

These symptoms may last from a few days to months, they will gradually fade as you start to process the trauma but even when you are feeling better, and you may recall from time to time painful memories or emotions.

Whether or not the traumatic event involves a loss, survivors still suffer from the loss of safety and security. Our natural reaction to this loss is grief, so it is NORMAL to go through a grieving process. Recovering from this traumatic event takes time and everyone heals at their own pace.

But you should seek professional help if:

  • You are having trouble functioning at home or work
  • Severe fear, anxiety or depression
  • Unable to form close relationships
  • Experiencing terrifying recalled memories or nightmares
  • Avoiding more things that remind you of that trauma
  • Emotionally numb or disconnected from others
  • Using alcohol or drugs to help you feel better.

How trauma is usually treated

In order to heal from this trauma, you must combat, face and resolve the feelings and memories you have avoided otherwise they will just resurface again without your control.

The treatment and healing usually involves processing the trauma-related memories and feelings that you have about it, discharging built up “fight or flight” energy, learning how to regulate these strong emotions and rebuilding the ability to trust other people again.

Trauma disrupts the body’s natural equilibrium which makes you frozed in a state of hyperarousal. Your nervous system gets stuck in overdrive so this imbalance needs to be reestablished. Therapies that are commonly used are

  • Somatic experiencing (focuses on bodily sensations)
  • EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)
  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy

Trauma recovery tips:

  • Don’t isolate yourself
  • Ask for support
  • Participate in social activities
  • Join a support group
  • Volunteer
  • Take up a new hobby
  • Stay grounded
  • Stick to a daily routine
  • Break large jobs into small ones which are more manageable
  • Find activities that will keep your mind occupied and that make you feel better
  • Allow yourself to feel what you feel, when you feel it
  • Take care of your health