Trauma has been a much talked about issue in the field of mental health over the past several years. Trauma has become an important part of understanding the impact of events on our development and daily functioning. While June is recognized as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month, this is a topic that most of us can relate to on some level, especially over the last year.
The relationship between psychological trauma and how it affects mental health, PTSD, or what it does to the brain and child development have been the focus of much research. National Institute of Health research shows that more than 70% of the general population has experienced at least one incident of trauma during their lifetime. Since then we have also dealt with a global pandemic; I am guessing that number may now be closer to 100%.
What exactly is psychological or emotional trauma? While there are varying definitions, simply put, psychological trauma can be described as damage to the psyche due to experiencing a traumatic event, a series of events or ongoing relentless stress. Not everyone will react to an event in the same way or at the same level. Some may carry long-term symptoms and others will not. Psychological or emotional trauma can elicit a variety of reactions, both physical and emotional.
Physical symptoms may include trouble sleeping or nightmares, fatigue, difficulties concentrating, being easily startled, agitation or anxiety, muscle tension, aches and pains, or a racing heartbeat.
Symptoms can be experienced for a few days to several months and can fade as the incident is processed. However, certain events or situations that remind you of the event may trigger a reaction even as time passes.
Research into brain function shows that trauma can affect your brain in several areas of functioning. This may cause ongoing dysregulation and the emotional and physical symptoms listed above. One level of functioning is survival instinct, or “flight, fight or freeze,” which releases cortisol into the system to prepare for danger.
On the recovery side would be the brain’s signal to relax, sleep and repair or return to a baseline. Our normal response is for the mind and body to communicate and regulate between these two. A traumatic situation can release chemicals to respond to a crisis but stress hormones (cortisol) may not return to normal after a traumatic event and decrease the effectiveness with other neurotransmitters to send messages.
This may create dysregulation between a message from your brain to your body in crisis response and returning to repair or relaxed state. When one area of the brain is under- or over-functioning it can affect the way you process information, think, sleep or wake and even your behavior. When you are operating in crisis mode there is less ability to learn, regulate or use logic or reasoning.
So now that we know a bit about what is going on, what do we do about it? To move on from psychological and emotional trauma you may have to experience feelings and memories that have been avoided. Trauma treatment may involve processing memories and emotions related to the trauma, regulating “fight, flight, freeze” energy, learning to regulate strong emotions, and building interpersonal skills and connections with others.
There are several common therapeutic approaches that may be helpful in treating emotional and psychological trauma. One such approach is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This is a common type of therapy that helps you become aware of your thoughts and feelings surrounding events and how they may be directing your behavior.
Another approach is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, called EMDR, which incorporates elements of CBT with eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation (left/right brain) that help with reprocessing traumatic events.
Somatic Experiencing can be used to focus on the body and sensations rather than the thoughts, emotions or memories associated with trauma. This is used on the premise that the focus on the body will release the pent-up related energy.
Healing takes time, and each person moves through the process at her own pace. If you find that you are having trouble with daily functioning, experience severe or ongoing anxiety or fear, are having nightmares or flashbacks, feel disconnected or find yourself coping with drugs or alcohol, it may be time to seek help.