PTSD and Trauma Disorders

One way to understand trauma in mental health is to view it as an injury, much like a physical injury. When there is a deeply disturbing event it can overwhelm the mind. It may leave a scar similar to a physical scar, one that heals but leaves a remnant behind of what occurred in the past. Anything overwhelming can be considered traumatic, but generally being seriously physically injured, a near death experience, or the loss of a loved one are often traumatic experiences. Psychological trauma is a response involving complex debilitation of adaptive abilities—emotional, cognitive, physical, spiritual and social—following an event that was perceived by our nervous system as life-threatening to oneself or others.

Trauma is a subjective experience and can be very different from person to person. Three people in a car accident may have different levels of stress related to the event. The first may be in total shock from the surprise of the violence, the second person may be a driver who is only upset they caused the accident onto others, and the last one may be calm because they were able to brace and have experienced similar events before. Trauma can be a one-time event, a prolonged event or a series of events. Trauma that affects a community or a country is called collective trauma.

A traumatic injury can affect all mental processes. Cognitive abilities to process, make judgements, and have insight can become impaired. Emotional instability from trauma includes cycling moods, having feelings of fear, anger, and pain, sometimes shame and guilt even if a person was not at fault. Physical symptoms such as aches that are not due to physical injury may be a side effect of anxiety, known as psychosomatic symptoms. A person’s behavior may change as they lose perspective on their values and worldview, this may also be joined with changes in social behavior with family and friends.

When trauma does occur, there are three main ways to categorize the way the disorder presents itself: complex trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and developmental trauma disorder.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a set of alarm responses that occur when a survivor’s nervous system remains on high alert after trauma in order to protect against further harm.  The survivor’s alert systems respond to reminders of the traumatic memories as a threat. Often, additional triggers are added to a growing list of stressors.

Developmental trauma occurs early in life and disrupts normal sequences of brain development. As a result, other aspects of development such as emotional, physical, cognitive, and social are also impacted. Unaddressed developmental trauma can manifest in many ways. The most common psychological diagnoses that follow are: bipolar disorder, personality disorders (especially borderline), ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, learning disabilities, social disabilities, addictions, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, complex PTSD, PTSD, and so forth.

Therapies for Trauma

There is no cure for trauma nor any quick fixes for the suffering associated with them. But there is hope. A wide range of effective therapies exists and access to them is widespread. Trauma survivors are best served by working with a therapist or therapy that is trauma-focused or trauma-informed. Most trauma-informed therapists will employ a combination of therapy modalities.

Therapies for TraumaPsychotherapy alternatives include exposure therapies to help with desensitization, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy which helps change thought and behavior patterns and reprocessing therapies like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) that allow the survivor to reprocess memories and events. Somatic therapies that use the body to process trauma include Somatic Experiencing and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. Hypnosis, mindfulness, craniosacral therapy, trauma-sensitive yoga, art therapy and acupuncture can all also help. And last, many people use medications – primarily antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications – which can make symptoms less intense and more manageable.

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