Trauma is the term given to the psychological and physiological responses we may experience in events, conditions and/or situations, which may be perceived to be dangerous, threatening and/or harmful.
There are some variations in what we define as “trauma” because what people perceive to be threatening can be different. Nevertheless, there are common events, conditions and situations that often cause trauma in people, such as witnessing or experiencing:
- Accidents (eg car or plane crashes);
- Physical and psychological violence and abuse from others;
- Natural disasters (eg flooding, fire, earthquake);
- Humiliation or embarrassment in public.
What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Following a trauma experience, when the shock is strong, people continue to feel emotionally unsafe and commonly report various types of anxiety-induced physiological and psychological disturbances, such as:
- Re-experiencing of trauma (eg flashbacks where it feels like they are experiencing the trauma again);
- Sleep disturbances (eg nightmares, difficulties in falling asleep due to anxiety, insomnia);
- Negative thoughts and feelings;
- Depressed mood;
- Social withdrawal.
People can suffer from strong emotional disturbances when they are exposed to any reminders of the trauma, as well as when they think about or remember the trauma.
When people experience disturbances following trauma, and have difficulties in daily living, they are often described as experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or acute stress disorder.
Understanding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can be persistent, and difficult to overcome even after a long period of time, due to the following reasons:
- Our brain is wired to more easily remember negative experiences, than positive experiences, for survival purposes.
- Anxiety can easily become stronger and generalized to different situations, when people continue to avoid anxiety triggering situations, events and conditions.
- The reactions to trauma are often automatic and can even occur subconsciously. People can become highly stressed and anxious even when they do not remember the experience of trauma, because it can be automatically stored into brain memory and can be subconsciously activated.
- Negative emotional reactions are persistent. The disturbances of trauma can continue even when people completely understand that they are no longer in danger and are not likely to experience the same situation again.
The reason trauma can persist, is that our logical thinking and our emotional reactions are controlled by different regions in the brain (the prefrontal cortex and limbic systems). When people are highly stressed and anxious, the power of the emotional reactions overtakes logical thinking. As our brain was developed to ensure survival, it is not easy for our brain to let go of traumatic memory.
Therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
While people can naturally overcome trauma in some cases, for others, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder does not resolve, and has a negative impact on daily life. Therefore, it is often useful to work with mental health professionals such as a psychologist, who can guide sufferers through the process in order to effectively overcome Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Author: Yu Takizawa, B Sc (Hons), M Couns, M App Psych.
Yu Takizawa is a Brisbane psychologist, fluent in both English and Japanese. He is particularly interested in offering counselling and psychotherapy services to people who are facing cultural challenges, or problems with anxiety.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422.