What is Psychological Trauma?

What is Psychological Trauma?

Some traumatic experiences are more obvious than others. Assault, natural disasters, medical emergencies, exposure to war and combat, motor vehicle accidents, workplace critical events, violent crime, life threatening attacks or accidents: these are all obvious potentially traumatising events. These kinds of events, however, are not the only kinds of traumatising experiences which can result in individuals suffering Post-Traumatic Stress and other emotional problems.

More appropriately, psychological trauma can be seen as an experience which has a lasting impact on self or psyche. Whether the trauma is a once-off event occurring in an instant, or a series of stressors of cumulative significance over a number of weeks, months or years – the resulting memory networks can leave a lasting imprint which continues to reverberate in the lives of affected individuals. The parts and functions of the brain activated by trauma, do not differentiate between the terror of a bomb blast, the terror of a young child left home alone, the powerlessness of being bullied in the school yard, or even sometimes the terror of imagining or hearing about a horrific event not personally witnessed. Any post-traumatic symptoms suffered tend to exhibit a very similar family of features.

Trauma can occur at any stage of life – and is not the exclusive domain of adulthood. Indeed, early life experiences (in childhood years) can significantly impact people’s physical and mental health outcomes throughout life. The chronic stress (and related physiological response) in an abusive, neglectful, inconsistent, or insufficiently emotionally supportive childhood can leave hidden, deep traumatic wounds. (For more information you may like to learn more about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) studies or complete an ACE questionnaire).

Traumatic events cause a fragmenting of the elements of associated memory such that aspects of the event remain ‘live’ and free-floating with distress, body sensation, and/or imagery. Those affected by a traumatic event will thus feel very disoriented and unsettled immediately following such an experience. For some people this will last a few days: the memory will be retrospectively processed and reconsolidated and they will return to normal functioning and mood. Early intervention of psychological first-aid treatment is often helpful in warding off any longer lasting impact.

Not everyone will experience this prompt natural return to normal functioning. Some people will experience ongoing symptoms which may include intrusive images such as reminders, dreams or flashbacks; re-experiencing of aspects of the trauma; attempts to numb or emotionally distance themselves; isolating and withdrawing; avoidance of people, places or activities associated with the trauma; hypervigilance and alertness for danger; alterations in thought and/or mood; feelings of detachment from others; difficulty experiencing or maintaining positive mood; increased bodily arousal or agitation; sleep difficulties; poor concentration and memory; and susceptibility to easily being startled. In such cases Trauma Focussed Psychological Intervention is indicated in order to prevent worsening of symptoms.

There are many very effective psychological therapies to address psychological trauma – including EMDR Therapy (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy). The treatment approach indicated will necessarily be a function of the nature of the trauma (i.e. single event, or complex); the history of symptoms (i.e. recent or long-standing), any safety and risk factors which need to be addressed to stabilise the client; and level of pre-trauma resourcing and functioning.
Recovery from trauma is possible; and we look forward to helping you live your life more freely from past influences.