Trauma and PTSD

Exposure to a single traumatic event, and certainly repeated exposure to trauma, can create serious mental health challenges. Trauma-specialized care is linked to improved mental health and quality of life. 

Key points

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Overview

Trauma occurs from experiencing something unbearable, and feeling unsupported or unequipped to deal with the experience. Trauma can result from a terrifying one-time event such as an assault, vehicle accident or natural disaster; or it can result from repetitive “minor” offenses, such as frequent verbal mistreatment by primary caregivers early on.

Trauma affects different people in different ways, and what one person might barely consider to be traumatic might affect someone else for years to come. Rather than casting judgment on how traumatic a particular event or experience is, it’s more helpful to consider trauma in the context of your individual experience and how it affects your life today.

Some issues that can often be traced back to trauma (although might also be caused by something else) include mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, rumination and compulsive overthinking, difficulty making decisions, sleep disturbances, low energy, low motivation in life, feeling easily irritated, difficulty forming healthy relationships or maintaining employment, or an overarching sense of struggling in life without understanding what’s wrong or how to resolve it.

Trauma and PTSD

Exposure to a traumatic event, such as a sexual assault, can have long-term effects on your well-being, and it can result in PTSD, but the event itself is not PTSD. PTSD describes a long-term condition characterized by significant distress, impairment, flashbacks, and re-experiencing the traumatic event or events.

Symptoms

Diminished ability to function in everyday life

Trauma disrupts your capacity to learn and process information, as you instinctively switch to survival mode when your sense of safety is threatened. While you’re trying to survive, it’s a good thing that your thought process shifts gears to ensure your safety. But when you’re finally out of harm’s way, it can be hard to heal the neurological rift that’s been created by the trauma and to continue functioning effectively in the world.

Mental health challenges

Trauma is also strongly correlated with mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, phobias, and ADHD. The effects of trauma interfere with executive functioning skills, such as your ability to prioritize, manage your time effectively, stick to a healthy routine, and maintain professional employment.

Trauma encourages unhealthy behaviours

Broad-reaching psychoanalytic research confirms the association between exposure to trauma and the development of dysfunctional and uncontrolled behaviours.

“Dysfunctional avoidance” refers to the attempt to avoid having to deal with unpleasant and discomforting experiences associated with numerous types of interpersonal trauma. This leads to an increased propensity to engage in substance abuse and problematic or self-injurious behaviours (including suicidal ideation and sexual risk-taking), while reducing the capacity to self-regulate injurious behaviours.

If you struggle with unhealthy compulsions or behaviours relating to food, sex, substances, or technology, unresolved trauma might play a significant role in your struggle. Fortunately, working to heal your trauma very often also heals the source of your behaviours, which makes it drastically easier to start changing your behaviours.

Physical health ramifications of trauma

In addition to lifestyle and behavioural challenges, poor physical health is often a result of trauma. Interpersonal trauma exposure is strongly associated with poorer physical health.

Children exposed to trauma are at increased risk of developing cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular issues, obesity, stroke, and substance use disorders, in addition to mental health issues.

Causes and risk factors

The chances of developing  PTSD or other problematic responses to trauma may be  affected by:

  • Hereditary and environmental variables.
  • Repeated exposure to traumatic events.
  • Feeling helpless during traumatic events.

Treatment for trauma

Fortunately, there are multiple effective treatments for trauma available for adults and for children. Trauma-aware therapy can be an important part of recovery.

Your therapist may suggest:

  • Trauma-informed CBT for teenagers, adolescents, and children
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) teaches individuals alternative ways of thinking, responding, and reacting to situations in order to reduce anxiety and fear. CBT has been extensively researched.
  • Exposure therapy is a CBT technique for the treatment of anxiety disorders. Exposure therapy focuses on tackling the worries underlying an anxiety condition in order to assist individuals in engaging in activities they have been avoiding. Sometimes, exposure treatment is combined with relaxation exercises.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a technique that can enable recovery from challenges caused by traumatic life events by using rapid eye movements and your perceptions to transform how you think about traumatic events.
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) employs mindfulness, goal-setting, and other strategies to alleviate discomfort and anxiety.
  • Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT)
  • Mindfulness or other approaches.

Related information

Briere, J., Hodges, M., & Godbout, N. (2010). Traumatic stress, affect dysregulation, and dysfunctional avoidance: a structural equation model. Journal of traumatic stress, 23 6, 767-74

Dimopoulou, I., Anthi, A., Mastora, Z., Theodorakopoulou, M., Konstandinidis, A., Evangelou, E., Mandragos, K.E., & Roussos, C. (2004). Health-Related Quality of Life and Disability in Survivors of Multiple Trauma One Year After Intensive Care Unit Discharge. American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, 83, 171-176.

López-Martínez, A., Serrano-Ibáñez, E.R., Ruíz-Párraga, G.T., Gómez-Pérez, L., Ramírez‐Maestre, C., & Esteve, R. (2018). Physical Health Consequences of Interpersonal Trauma: A Systematic Review of the Role of Psychological Variables. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 19, 305 – 322.

Sanderud, K., Murphy, S., & Elklit, A. (2016). Child maltreatment and ADHD symptoms in a sample of young adults. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 7.

Schnurr, P.P., & Green, B.L. (2004). Understanding relationships among trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, and health outcomes. Advances in mind-body medicine, 20 1, 18-29