Very frightening or distressing events may result in a psychological wound or injury. This trauma can result in difficulty in coping or functioning normally.
Everyone’s reaction to potentially traumatic experiences is different. Most people recover well with the help of family and friends and do not experience long-term problems.
Some people experience problems directly after the traumatic event or much later.
Potentially traumatic events are powerful and upsetting incidents that intrude into daily life. They are usually experiences which are life threatening or pose a significant threat to a person’s physical or psychological wellbeing.
An event may have little impact on one person but cause severe distress in another. A person’s mental and physical health, available support at the time of the event or their past experience and coping skills can influence how they respond to a traumatic event.
Situations and events that can lead to psychological trauma include:
- acts of violence such as an armed robbery, war or terrorism
- natural disasters such as bushfires, earthquakes or floods
- interpersonal violence such as rape, child abuse, or the suicide of a family member or friend
- involvement in a serious motor vehicle or workplace accident
Other stressful situations which appear less severe may still trigger traumatic reactions in some people.
Many people have strong emotional or physical reactions following experience of a traumatic event. For most, these reactions subside over a few days or weeks.
For some, the symptoms may last longer and be more severe. This may be due to several factors such as the nature of the traumatic event, the level of available support, previous and current life stress, personality, and coping resources.
Symptoms of trauma can be described as physical, cognitive (thinking), behavioural (things we do) and emotional.
- Physical symptoms can include excessive alertness (always on the look-out for signs of danger), being easily startled, fatigue/exhaustion, disturbed sleep and general aches and pains.
- Cognitive (thinking) symptoms can include intrusive thoughts and memories of the event, visual images of the event, nightmares, poor concentration and memory, disorientation and confusion.
- Behavioural symptoms can include avoidance of places or activities that are reminders of the event, social withdrawal and isolation and loss of interest in normal activities.
- Emotional symptoms can include fear, numbness and detachment, depression, guilt, anger and irritability, anxiety and panic.
As long as they are not too severe or don’t last for too long, the symptoms described above are normal reactions to trauma. Although these symptoms can be distressing, they will settle quickly in most people. They are part of the natural healing process of adjusting to a very powerful event, making some sense out of what happened, and putting it into perspective.
With understanding and support from family, friends and colleagues the stress symptoms usually resolve more rapidly.
Warning signs may include:
- being unable to handle the intense feelings or physical sensations
- feeling numb and empty
- experiencing strong distressing emotions that persist
- being physically tense, agitated or feeling on edge
- disturbed sleep or nightmares
- lacking support from someone with whom you can share your emotions
- having relationship problems with friends, family and colleagues
- increasing your use of alcohol or drugs.
Sexual assault involves any unwanted and involuntary sexual behaviour towards a person. The victim is forced or coerced engage in an act against their will in a non-consensual setting. Sexual assault can include rape, groping, forced kissing, and any other sort of harassment or abuse in a sexual context.
- Neglect: Occurs when a parent or caregiver does not give a child the care he or she needs according to his or her age, even though the adult can afford to give that care or is offered help to give that care. Neglect can mean failure to provide food, clothing, shelter, medical care, mental health treatment, education, or proper supervision to a child or exposing a child to dangerous environments. Neglect is the most common form of abuse reported to child welfare authorities.
- Physical Abuse: Physical abuse is causing or attempting to cause physical pain or injury. This includes punching, beating, kicking, burning, or harming a child in any way. Injury may also occur when a punishment is not appropriate for a child’s age or condition.
- Sexual Abuse: Child sexual abuse includes a wide range of sexual behaviours that take place between a child and an adult. Alternatively, sexual abuse may take place between a child and another child/adolescent if force or manipulation is involved or if there is a five year age difference between the children. Behaviours that are sexually abusive often involve bodily contact, such as sexual kissing, touching, fondling of genitals, and intercourse. However, behaviours may be sexually abusive even if they do not involve contact, such as of genital exposure (“flashing”), verbal pressure for sex, and sexual exploitation such as pornography.
- Emotional Abuse/Psychological Maltreatment: Acts against a child that caused or could have caused conduct, cognitive, affective or other mental disturbances, such as verbal abuse, emotional abuse, excessive demands on a child’s performance that may lead to negative self-image, and disturbed behaviour. Acts of omission against a child, such as emotional neglect or intentional social deprivation, is also considered emotional abuse.
Domestic violence is classified as actual or threatened physical violence, sexual violence, and/or emotional abuse between adults in an intimate relationship.
War Related Trauma
- Refugee and War Zone Trauma: Exposure to war, political violence, or torture. Refugee trauma can be the result of living in a region affected by bombing, shooting, or looting, as well as forced displacement to a new home due to political reasons.
- Terrorism: Any trauma in which there is an intent to inflict psychological or physical damage on an adversary, usually for political or religious reasons. Terrorism includes attacks by individuals acting in isolation (e.g., sniper attacks) as well as attacks by groups or people acting for groups.
- Combat-related Trauma: Military personnel engaged in direct warfare may lead to psychological harm. Exposure to death and threats to life, and experience of fear or horror are common causes of combat-related trauma.
School Violence & Community Violence
School and community violence include predatory violence or personal conflicts between people who are not family members (e.g., shootings, rape, robbery).
Children may show traumatic reactions to medical conditions, invasive medical procedures, or treatments that are frightening or cause pain, injury, and/or serious illness.
Traumatic loss or grief can occur following a death of someone important to a child or adult. The death is typically sudden and unexpected.
Any natural catastrophe (e.g., tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes) that causes enough damage that local, state, or federal agencies and disaster relief organizations are called into action.
There are a number of ways you can help look after yourself after a traumatic event or situation:
- Recognise that you have been through a distressing experience and give yourself permission to experience some reaction to it. Don’t be angry with yourself for being upset
- Remind yourself that you are not abnormal and that you can and are coping
- Avoid overuse of alcohol or other drugs to cope
- Avoid making any major decisions or life changes
- Do not try to block out thoughts of what happened. Gradually confronting these thoughts will assist you in coming to terms with the traumatic experience.
- Share your experiences with others when opportunities arise. This may feel uncomfortable at times, but talking to people you trust rather than bottling up your feelings is helpful in dealing with trauma
- Try to maintain a normal routine. Keep busy and structure your day. Remember that regular exercise is important, but do allow yourself time to rest if you are tired.
- Do not unnecessarily avoid certain activities or places
- Let your friends and family know your needs. Help them to help you by letting them know when you are tired, need time out, or need a chance to talk or just be with someone
- Make time to practise relaxation. Use a formal technique such as progressive muscle relaxation, or just make time to absorb yourself in a relaxing activity such as gardening or listening to music. This will help your body and mind to readjust
- If the trauma stirs up memories or feelings from an unrelated past event, try not to let the memories all blur together. Keep the memories separate and deal with them separately
- Express your feelings as they arise. Discuss them with someone else or write them down in a diary. Expressing feelings often helps the healing process.
Most people who experience a traumatic event will not require treatment. For some people trauma is debilitating and treatment from a mental health professional will be required.
Treatments include trauma-focused psychological interventions. These focus on education, stress management techniques, and helping the person to confront feared situations and distressing memories.
In some cases medication such as antidepressants can be useful, alongside trauma-focused psychological approaches.
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If you feel that a traumatic event is impacting on your ability to enjoy life, a Life Psychologist may be able to help.
- Life Psychologists are highly trained and qualified professionals, skilled in providing effective interventions for a range of mental health concerns, including trauma.
- A Life Psychologist can help you to identify and address factors that might be contributing to your trauma symptoms and the most effective ways to address them using techniques based on best available research.
- A Life Psychologist can also help a person to manage other problems that may be associated with the trauma, such as depression, stress, drug and alcohol use, or relationship problems.
- Life Psychologists usually see clients individually, but can also include family members to support treatment where appropriate.
A medical check-up with a GP might also be helpful to see if there is an underlying health issue.