What is Trauma? Symptoms and Types

Apr 18, 20245 min
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Trauma is a complex mind–body reaction that occurs in response to an extremely stressful life event(s). 

The traumatic events can be: 

  • Personal; for example, the death of a loved one, a financial loss, abusive and toxic relationships, etc.
  • Global, i.e., occurring to many people at the same time; for example, natural disaster, war, etc.

The traumatic event(s) may be a singular event (e.g., a car accident) or continuously occurring for long periods of time (e.g., abusive relationships).

Trauma takes an extreme toll on a person’s mind and body which is often greater than their capacity to deal with it. The impact of trauma varies with each individual - what may have a debilitating effect on one person may not have the same effect on another. For example, after a car accident, one person may resume their life as before whereas another person may exhibit anxiety, be preoccupied with thoughts of the day of the accident, and may start to avoid driving altogether. 

Therefore, it is important to pay attention to yourself and others when one is going through a hard time - the impact of trauma looks different for everyone. No matter the “level” of hardship, every experience is worthy of compassion and deserving of support. 

WHAT CAUSES TRAUMA?

Any event that is sudden, unpredictable, and poses an actual or perceived threat to life has the potential to cause a traumatic impact on the individual. 

Some examples of possible traumatic events are: 

  • Tragic life transitions, such as disease, death, losing a lot of money, moving around a lot, etc.
  • Exposure to abuse, neglect, and/or violence on a regular basis, whether direct, indirect, or both.
  • Experiences of being marginalized, oppressed, and discriminated against because of one's sociopolitical status (e.g., gender, caste, class, etc).

The traumatic response is dependent on the interaction of multiple factors like:

  • genetics,
  • family history,
  • sociopolitical and culture-related variables (e.g., gender, caste, class, religion, etc.),
  • level of social support, 
  • nature and duration of the ongoing stressors,
  • tools and ability to cope with stress, etc. 

Our body and mind react to traumatic events in multiple ways. The traumatic events canleave an individual feeling overwhelmed and out of control where they are on a constant lookout for their survival directly and indirectly. 

SIGNS OF TRAUMA

There is a general consensus about how people's bodies and minds react to trauma. When someone faces severe, persistent, and/or extended adversity without receiving enough care and support, they may experience traumatic stress, which can manifest as an emotional and/or physical reaction.

This is a partial list of symptoms and indicators associated with trauma. It is crucial to understand that the existence of any one of these symptoms does not always imply the presence of trauma. Many circumstances can combine to cause trauma, so working with a therapist to diagnose and consider treatment options is ideal. 

  1. Physical Symptoms
  • Weak immune system/highly prone to falling sick
  • Physical symptoms of illness without a medical cause
  • Pain-related symptoms without a medical cause
  • Excess depletion of energy in meeting the physical demands of daily life (e.g., daily chores, travel, etc.)
  • A chronic lack of energy and motivation
  1. Emotional Symptoms
  • Inability to stay grounded in the present moment (e.g., constant worry about what to do next, zoning out often from the conversations, etc.)
  • Unable to manage the emotional toll of daily stressors
  • Experiencing “intense” emotions leading to excess depletion of energy
  • Emotional outbursts that feel exaggerated or without a cause after some time
  • Chronic feelings of anxiety and restlessness
  • Feeling apathetic, hopeless, and helpless most of the time 
  • Feeling stuck in certain emotional patterns that seemingly repeat themselves often (e.g., multiple breakups because of similar reasons, consistent feedback from people about an inability to take feedback, etc.) 
  • Multiple mental health diagnoses (e.g., diagnosed with PTSD with anxiety and depression)
  • Feeling life is meaningless and lacking in purpose 
  1. Interpersonal Symptoms
  • A lack of security, contentment, and stability in relationships
  • Recurrent interpersonal conflicts around similar themes (e.g., complaints about lack of care, responsibility, accountability, etc.)
  • Having trouble relying on other individuals for support and establishing trust
  • A pervasive sense of disconnection with self, others, and the world in general

IMPACT OF TRAUMA

Trauma can have an impact on our physical, emotional, and social well-being, among other aspects of our lives. When dealing with everyday stressors, our nervous system usually works in synergy - it mobilizes energy to deal with the stressor at hand (sympathetic activation), followed by a period of rest and recovery after the stressful period is over (parasympathetic activation). In optimum health, the nervous system harmoniously goes back and forth between sympathetic and parasympathetic activation. 

Traumatic symptoms can disrupt our nervous system functioning, keeping it stuck in sympathetic activation for long periods of time. It leads to chronic stress where an individual is often unable to relax, experiences a myriad of trauma-related symptoms, and lives as if they are constantly in danger (the danger can be real or imagined). Understandably, it overwhelms the body and mind, has adverse effects on our physical and mental health, and reduces the quality of life.

TYPES OF TRAUMAS

Traumatic events can be classified in multiple ways based on different criteria. The most common classifications are based on: 

  • Frequency: How many times has a traumatic event(s) occurred?
  • Duration: How long did the traumatic event(s) last?

On the basis of frequency, trauma can be roughly classified into “Big T” and Little t” trauma. 

  • "Big T" trauma are seemingly exceptional events that leave a person with a sense of helplessness and limited control over their surroundings. For instance, accidents, natural disasters, sexual assault, etc.
  • "Little t" traumas are situations that may appear "common," yet they are beyond the ability of an individual to handle. Because they are downplaying the significance of these events, a person may attempt to ignore or shame themselves for struggling with them. For instance, significant life transitions, unsafe interpersonal conflicts, bullying, etc.

Repeated exposure to "little t" traumas, particularly throughout childhood, may have an impact that is comparable to or greater than exposure to "big T" traumas. 

On the basis of duration, trauma can be roughly classified into acute and chronic trauma. 

  • Acute trauma is characterized by severe distress for a short period of time in the immediate aftermath of a single incident. For example, a car accident, theft, unexpected death, etc. With adequate support and care, a person may be able to integrate this event within their lives.
  • However, if a traumatic(s) event occurs over a long period of time, it can result in chronic trauma. For example, chronic trauma may arise as a result of ongoing harassment, abandonment, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, domestic violence, etc.

Understandably, trauma causes a significant negative impact on a person’s health and quality of life. Trauma is not about the magnitude of the experiences but what is experienced in mind and body in the aftermath of an event. Every event requires empathy, consideration, and assistance. If you are struggling to cope with something, consider reaching out for help in whatever way seems supportive to you.

While living with trauma can be complex and debilitating, it is a treatable mental health condition. A lot of mental health treatment options are available that enable a person to lead a happy, fulfilling, and meaningful life. If you suspect that you may have trauma, consider reaching out to a psychologist to understand your treatment options. 

Currently, there are exciting advancements in the field of trauma which will open up multiple new treatment avenues for mental health service users.

At Mave Health, we understand that most people find it challenging to find the correct mental health expert who can fulfill their needs. In order to help you locate a mental health practitioner who aligns with your interests, we are developing Therapy Club - the largest mental health platform in India. Feel free to connect with our trusted professionals to start your mental health journey. 

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Shama Shah
Therapy and Supervision