Psychological trauma is a type of damage to the psyche that occurs as a result of a traumatic event. When that trauma leads to posttraumatic stress disorder, damage may involve physical changes inside the brain and to brain chemistry, which changes the person’s response to future stress.
A traumatic event involves a single experience, or an enduring or repeating event or events, that completely overwhelm the individual’s ability to cope or integrate the ideas and emotions involved with that experience. The sense of being overwhelmed can be delayed by weeks, years or even decades, as the person struggles to cope with the immediate circumstances.
Psychological trauma can lead to serious long-term negative consequences that are often overlooked even by mental health professionals: If clinicians fail to look through a trauma lens and to conceptualize client problems as related possibly to current or past trauma, they may fail to see that trauma victims, young and old, organize much of their lives around repetitive patterns of reliving and warding off traumatic memories, reminders, and affects.
Trauma can be caused by a wide variety of events, but there are a few common aspects. There is frequently a violation of the person’s familiar ideas about the world and of their human rights, putting the person in a state of extreme confusion and insecurity. This is also seen when people or institutions, depended on for survival, violate or betray or disillusion the person in some unforeseen way.
Psychological trauma may accompany physical trauma or exist independently of it. Typical causes and dangers of psychological trauma are sexual abuse, bullying, domestic violence, indoctrination, the victim of alcoholism, the threat of either, or the witnessing of either, particularly in childhood. Catastrophic events such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, war or other mass violence can also cause psychological trauma. Long-term exposure to situations such as extreme poverty or milder forms of abuse, such as verbal abuse, can be traumatic (though verbal abuse can also potentially be traumatic as a single event).
However, different people will react differently to similar events. One person may experience an event as traumatic while another person would not suffer trauma as a result of the same event. In other words, not all people who experience a potentially traumatic event will actually become psychologically traumatized.
Some theories suggest childhood trauma can lead to violent behavior. Some ideas believe such violent behavior can be as extreme as serial murder. For example, Hickey’s Trauma-Control Model which suggests childhood trauma for serial murderers may serve as a triggering mechanism resulting in an individual’s inability to cope with the stress of certain events.
People who go through these types of extremely traumatic experiences often have certain symptoms and problems afterward. How severe these symptoms are depends on the person, the type of trauma involved, and the emotional support they receive from others. Reactions to and symptoms of trauma can be wide and varied, and differ in severity from person to person. A traumatized individual may experience one or several of them.
After a traumatic experience, a person may re-experience the trauma mentally and physically, hence avoiding trauma reminders, also called triggers, as this can be uncomfortable and even painful. They may turn to psychoactive substances including alcohol to try to escape the feelings. Re-experiencing symptoms are a sign that the body and mind are actively struggling to cope with the traumatic experience.
Triggers and cues act as reminders of the trauma, and can cause anxiety and other associated emotions. Often the person can be completely unaware of what these triggers are. In many cases this may lead a person suffering from traumatic disorders to engage in disruptive or self-destructive coping mechanisms, often without being fully aware of the nature or causes of their own actions. Panic attacks are an example of a psychosomatic response to such emotional triggers.
Consequently, intense feelings of anger may surface frequently, sometimes in very inappropriate or unexpected situations, as danger may always seem to be present. Upsetting memories such as images, thoughts, or flashbacks may haunt the person, and nightmares may be frequent. Insomnia may occur as lurking fears and insecurity keep the person vigilant and on the lookout for danger, both day and night.
The person may not remember what actually happened while emotions experienced during the trauma may be reexperienced without the person understanding why (see Repressed memory). This can lead to the traumatic events being constantly experienced as if they were happening in the present, preventing the subject from gaining perspective on the experience. This can produce a pattern of prolonged periods of acute arousal punctuated by periods of physical and mental exhaustion.
In time, emotional exhaustion may set in, leading to distraction, and clear thinking may be difficult or impossible. Emotional detachment, as well as dissociation or “numbing out”, can frequently occur. Dissociating from the painful emotion includes numbing all emotion, and the person may seem emotionally flat, preoccupied, distant, or cold. The person can become confused in ordinary situations and have memory problems.
Some traumatized people may feel permanently damaged when trauma symptoms do not go away and they do not believe their situation will improve. This can lead to feelings of despair, loss of self-esteem, and frequently depression. If important aspects of the person’s self and world understanding have been violated, the person may call their own identity into question.
Often despite their best efforts, traumatized parents may have difficulty assisting their child with emotion regulation, attribution of meaning, and containment of post-traumatic fear in the wake of the child’s traumatization, leading to adverse consequences for the child. In such instances, it is in the interest of the parent(s) and child for the parent(s) to seek consultation as well as to have their child receive appropriate mental health services.
Trauma can be caused by man-made and natural disasters, including war, abuse, violence, earthquakes, mechanized accidents (car, train, or plane crashes, etc.) or medical emergencies.
Responses to psychological trauma There are several behavioral responses common towards stressors including the proactive, reactive, and passive responses. Proactive responses include attempts to address and correct a stressor before it has a noticeable effect on lifestyle. Reactive responses occur after the stress and possible trauma has occurred, and are aimed more at correcting or minimizing the damage of a stressful event. A passive response is often characterized by an emotional numbness or ignorance of a stressor.
Those who are able to be proactive can often overcome stressors and are more likely to be able to cope well with unexpected situations. On the other hand, those who are more reactive will often experience more noticeable effects from an unexpected stressor. In the case of those who are passive, victims of a stressful event are more likely to suffer from long term traumatic effects and often enact no intentional coping actions. These observations may suggest that the level of trauma associated with a victim is related to such independent coping abilities.
Betrayal trauma theory suggests that psychogenic amnesia is an adaptive response to childhood abuse. When a parent or other powerful figure violates a fundamental ethic of human relationships, victims may need to remain unaware of the trauma not to reduce suffering but rather to promote survival. Amnesia enables the child to maintain an attachment with a figure vital to survival, development, and thriving. Analysis of evolutionary pressures, mental modules, social cognitions, and developmental needs suggests that the degree to which the most fundamental human ethics are violated can influence the nature, form, and processes of trauma and responses to trauma.
There is also a distinction between trauma induced by recent situations and long-term trauma which may have been buried in the unconscious from past situations such as childhood abuse. Trauma is often overcome through healing; in some cases this can be achieved by recreating or revisiting the origin of the trauma under more psychologically safe circumstances, such as with a therapist.
In times of war, psychological trauma has been known as shell shock or combat stress reaction. Psychological trauma may cause an acute stress reaction which may lead on to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD emerged as the label for this condition after the Vietnam War in which many veterans returned to their respective countries demoralized, and sometimes, addicted to psychoactive substances. Psychological trauma is treated with therapy and, if indicated, psychotropic medications.
Following traumatic events, persons involved are often asked to talk about the events soon after, sometimes even immediately after the event occurred in order to start a healing process. This practice may not garner the positive results needed to recover psychologically from a traumatic event.
Victims of traumatic occurrences who were debriefed immediately after the event in general do far better than others who received therapy at a later time, though there is also evidence to suggest forcing immediate debriefing may distort the natural psychological healing process.