Psychological and Emotional Trauma

Raymond Shred, PhD

One of my favourite bumper stickers from the 1980’s stated that “One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day.” Similarly, a major trauma can ruin much more than one day.

Psychological trauma affects many people. The formal definition of trauma and the type of experiences that are considered traumatic has changed over the years. The first definitions related to extreme experiences of soldiers on the battlefield. The condition has been called shellshock and battlefield psychosis among other things until the 1980’s when the name Posttraumatic Stress Disorder was first used. PTSD is the name that has come into common use.

The type of experiences that could create a traumatic response has been broadened to include: serious motor vehicle accidents, rape, physical assault, child sexual abuse, and witnessing a murder, among others. Most authorities agree that whether or not an incident is traumatic depends upon the reaction of the person who was affected. The same experience may be traumatic to one person and not another; it is even possible for something to be traumatic one time and not the next time for the same person.

An event may evoke a traumatic response when it overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. Usually the traumatic event was unexpected and it contained or implied the possibility of serious harm or death. Thus, a motor vehicle accident could create a traumatic response.

In assessing someone who has been affected by a traumatic incident, psychologists look for certain symptom patterns. These include the following:

  • Re-experiencing the trauma: A person may have frequent flashbacks to the event or nightmares about it. They may have a sudden flooding of emotions or even smells or other bodily sensations related to the traumatic event.
  • Emotional numbing and avoidance: Sometimes people forget an important part of a traumatic event or they may avoid people and situations that remind them of the event. They may experience depression, a sense of estrangement from people close to them, or an altered sense of time.
  • Increased arousal: Some people become jumpy or have an extreme sense of being "on guard." They may overreact emotionally to events such as having an extreme anger response. They may have difficulty sleeping.

As I implied above, exposure to trauma can have a long lasting impact on a person (and their family, friends, and coworkers as well). When a person is left on their own following a traumatic event they will often develop ways of coping with their reactions. While some coping responses are appropriate and effective, others are not. Remember that, by definition, something that is traumatic tends to overwhelm a person’s ability to cope effectively.

Some people develop problems with substance abuse. They may use alcohol or other drugs to numb or avoid their painful emotions. They may respond as if the rules of the world have changed and lose faith in previously held beliefs that helped them to cope. They may engage in self-destructive behaviour. They may feel permanently damaged.

Emotional and psychological trauma may result in a person’s inability to maintain close relationships or they may choose to associate with people who are not interested or able to help them recover. They may develop sexual problems. They may withdraw socially while at the same time have increased arguments with family members, employers, or co-workers.

It is important to remind you that different people are affected differently by events. Whether an event causes PTSD for any individual depends upon a number of factors. These include the person’s degree of control in the situation, their past history of exposure to trauma, the response of people close to them in the aftermath of the trauma, and the availability of appropriate coping responses.

It is even more important to state that being affected by a traumatic event, or even developing PTSD, is not a sign of personal weakness. Whether someone develops PTSD as a result of some event is similar to whether a person’s leg breaks in response to a physical trauma. Some pressures and forces will break bones; we would not think someone is bad because they have a broken leg. I believe it is important to think about psychological trauma in a similar way.

Subsequent articles in this series will provide information on treatments that we have found effective for the impact of experiencing a traumatic event.

Dr Raymond Shred
Nanaimo, British Columbia
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