Trauma and PTSD

Trauma and PTSD

What is Trauma?

When something bad happens, it can take some time to overcome the event or experience and feel safe again.  If an extremely stressful event has left you feeling anxious, helpless, and emotionally out of control, you may be traumatized. 

Trauma is defined as a psychological and emotional response to an event or an experience that is distressing or disturbing. Traumatic events are shocking, dangerous, scary and disturbing. These types of experiences can be natural, like a hurricane or an earthquake, but they can also be caused by other people, like a car accident, attack, assault or crime.

Emotional and Psychological Trauma

 Psychological trauma can cause a person to struggle with lingering upsetting emotions, memories, and anxiety.  It can also make them feel numb, disconnected, and non-trusting of other people. 

The result of extraordinarily stressful events that have destroyed your sense of security and may be caused you to feel helpless in a dangerous world is emotional and psychological trauma.  These traumatic experiences typically involve a threat to a person’s life or safety, but any situation that causes a person to feel overwhelmed or isolated can result in trauma. It does not have to involve physical harm.  An individual’s subjective emotional experience of an event is the determining factor of whether it is traumatic or not, not the objective circumstances.

Emotional and psychological trauma can be caused by a number of factors, including:

  • One-time events– an accident, injury or violent assault that was unexpected or happened in childhood
  • Ongoing, relentless stress– living in a neighborhood with high crime rates, battling a life-threatening illness or experiencing traumatic events that are repeated, such as bullying, violence in marriage, or childhood neglect
  • Commonly overlooked causes– surgery that has occurred in the first three years of a person’s life, the sudden death of a loved one, the breakup of a significant relationship, or a disappointing or humiliating experience when someone was intentionally cruel

There are various levels of trauma. Typically, trauma is defined by the individual’s reaction to the event or experience. Everyone processes a traumatic event differently. Thus, trauma reactions fall across a wide spectrum including PTSD, complex trauma, and developmental trauma disorder.

What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

PTSD is a disorder that develops in individuals who have experienced a scary, shocking, or dangerous event. During traumatic situations, it is natural for individuals to feel afraid both during the event and after the event. When an individual is in fear, the body makes a split-second decision to defend against danger or to avoid it. This type of bodily reaction causes a “fight-or-flight” response that is meant to protect the individual from harm. 

In traumatic situations, people will experience a range of reactions. Most people recover from their initial symptoms naturally. However, individuals who continue to experience symptoms and problems may be diagnosed with PTSD. Individuals with PTSD feel stressed or afraid when they are not in danger. 

Many people associate PTSD with emergency responders and war veterans. However, not everyone with PTSD has been through a dangerous event. PTSD can be caused by a variety of experiences – such as the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one. PTSD symptoms typically begin with 3 months of the traumatic event, but on some occasions, they can begin years afterward.  

To be diagnosed with PTSD, an individual must experience the following symptoms for at least one month:

  • At least one re-experiencing symptom
  • Re-experiencing symptoms include flashbacks, bad dreams, nightmares, and frightening thoughts.
  • At least one avoidance symptom
  • Avoidance symptoms include staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the traumatic event
  • At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
  • Arousal and reactivity symptoms include being easily startled, feeling tense, insomnia, or angry outbursts
  • At least two cognition and mood symptoms
  • Negative thoughts about oneself or the world, distorted feelings like guilt or blame, loss of interest in enjoyable activities, trouble remembering key features of a traumatic event

Complex Trauma

Complex trauma describes exposure to multiple traumatic events. These events tend to be of invasive and interpersonal nature and have long-term, wide-ranging effects. Complex trauma involves traumatic events that are severe and pervasive, such as abuse or neglect. The experiences typically occur early in life and disrupt the normal development of a child and their formation of a sense of self. Because the events often involve a caregiver, a child often loses the ability to form secure attachments. 

Individuals with complex trauma often have negative thoughts, emotions, or beliefs about themselves and the world. They also may have uncomfortable feelings in their body because they live in a state of constant stress. The effects of complex trauma are long-lasting and disrupt the healthy development of a child. Complex trauma is often the unseen cause of many problems and difficulties that people can face years later.

In children that were raised in families and homes that did not provide consistent safety, comfort, and protection can develop survival strategies and other ways to function on a daily basis.  They can become overly sensitive to the moods of others, constantly watching adults around them to figure out how they are feeling and will behave.  

These children tend to be withdrawn when it comes to expressing their emotions to others by not allowing them to see when they are afraid, sad, or angry.  These types of coping mechanisms make sense when there is a physical or emotional threat present, but as they grow up encounter safe situations and relationships, these learned behaviors can be counterproductive to their ability to form healthy relationships, to live, love, and be loved.

Developmental Trauma

The traditional label of PTSD was often given to individuals who experience extreme distress after a traumatic incident.  Individuals who experienced multiple traumas during childhood did not meet the criteria for a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis, so children were either not diagnosed and received no services or were given an alternative diagnosis, such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD0 or Conduct Disorder, which does not full under the context of trauma.

As a result, the term “developmental trauma” was developed and used to specify the impact of multiple childhood traumas versus a single traumatic incident

Children and adolescents who are exposed to chronic interpersonal trauma can be diagnosed with Developmental Trauma Disorder. Developmental Trauma is similar to Complex Trauma because it developed in childhood and did not allow for a child to develop a sense of self. Children who were in the context of ongoing danger, maltreatment and inadequate caregiving systems may experience Developmental Trauma Disorder. 

The criteria for developmental trauma include exposure to trauma, affective and physiological dysregulation, attentional and behavioral dysregulation, self and relational dysregulation and post-traumatic spectrum symptoms. In order to diagnose an individual with developmental trauma disorder, symptoms would have to be present for 6 months or more and have a significant impact on the individual’s level of functioning. Generally speaking, insecure attachment and attachment disorder are the causes of developmental trauma. Complex trauma often exists with order disorders such as borderline personality disorder, PTSD, anxiety and depression.

Signs and Symptoms of Trauma

Reactions to traumatic events vary, but most people will have intense responses immediately following the event and for several weeks or months after a traumatic event. 

Responses can include the following: 

  • Feeling anxious, sad, or angry
  • Trouble concentrating and sleeping
  • Continually thinking about what happened
  • Shock, denial. or disbelief
  • Withdrawing from other
  • Guilt, shame, self-blame
  • Anger, irritability, mood swing
  • Numbness or feeling disconnected

Signs and Symptoms of Trauma

Reactions to traumatic events vary, but most people will have intense responses immediately following the event and for several weeks or months after a traumatic event. 

Responses can include the following: 

  • Feeling anxious, sad, or angry
  • Trouble concentrating and sleeping
  • Continually thinking about what happened

In most situations, these types of responses are normal and will lessen over time. In some cases, stressful thoughts and feelings after a traumatic event will continue for a long time and interfere with everyday life. 

Signs that an individual may need professional help include:

  • Worrying a lot or feeling very anxious, sad, or fearful
  • Crying often
  • Having trouble thinking clearly
  • Having frightening thoughts, reliving the experience
  • Feeling angry
  • Having nightmares or difficulty sleeping
  • Avoiding places or people that bring back disturbing memories and responses.

In most situations, these types of responses are normal and will lessen over time. In some cases, stressful thoughts and feelings after a traumatic event will continue for a long time and interfere with everyday life. 

Trauma can also illicit a physical response and these symptoms may include:

  • Headaches
  • Stomach pain and digestive issues
  • Feeling tired
  • Racing heart and sweating
  • Being very jumpy and easily startled

Get Help for Trauma Today

For those individuals who have experienced a traumatic event, seeking help can be beneficial. At Montare Behavioral Health, we treat a wide variety of trauma disorders and can help you restore a sense of control to your life. Contact us today to learn more about how Montare Behavioral Health can help you overcome trauma.

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