Symptoms, Signs & Effects of Emotional Trauma

Understanding Emotional Trauma

Understanding emotional trauma

Psychological, or emotional trauma, is damage or injury to the psyche after living through an extremely frightening or distressing event and may result in challenges in functioning or coping normally after the event. While each person who experiences a traumatic event will react differently, many do recover well with a proper support system and do not experience long-term problems. Some people, however, after experiencing a traumatic event will go on to develop challenges directly following the event or within a few months of the event.

While traumatic experiences frequently involve life-threatening events, any situation that leaves one feeling alone and completely overwhelmed can be traumatic – even without physical harm. It’s important to remember that it’s not the objective facts of the event alone that determine how traumatic an event is; it’s also the subjective emotional experience of the event. Often, the more terror and helplessness one feels, the more likely it is that an individual will be traumatized.

The ability to recognize psychological and emotional trauma has undergone a revolution throughout the years. Until recently, psychologists only made note of men who’d been through catastrophic wars as having psychological trauma – the women’s movement in the 1960s broadened our view of traumatic events to include violence and sexual abuse against women and children. After much was learned about trauma in the 1990s, the definition of traumatic events has even further expanded. Thanks to the ability of MRI and CT scans of the brain, we’re now able to observe the brain in action. These brain scans have actually revealed that trauma actually changes both the structure and the function of the brain. There are treatments that can relieve some of the symptoms of emotional trauma fortunately.

Traumatic Events

What is a potentially traumatic event

Potentially traumatic events can be caused by a singular occasion, or from ongoing, relentless stresses. A potentially traumatic event is more prone to leave an individual with longer-lasting emotional and psychological trauma if:

  • The individual was unprepared for the event
  • The event occurred out of the blue
  • The person felt powerless to prevent the event
  • The event occurred repeatedly (such as child abuse)
  • If the event involved extreme cruelty
  • If the event occurred during the childhood years

Potentially traumatic events are defined as events that are both powerful and upsetting that intrude into the daily life of a man or woman. Generally speaking, potentially traumatic events involve major threat to one’s psychological and physical well-being. Potentially traumatic events may be life-threatening; to one’s own life or the life of a loved one. These events may have very little impact on one individual but can lead to significant distress in another. The impact of a potentially traumatic event may be related to the mental and physical health of the person, past traumatic experiences, presence of coping skills, and level of social and emotional support at the time of the potentially traumatic event. Examples of events and situations that can lead to the development of psychological trauma may include:

  • Natural disasters such as fires, earthquakes, tornados, and hurricanes
  • Interpersonal violence like rape, child abuse, or the suicide of a loved one or friend
  • Involvement in a serious car accident or workplace accident
  • Acts of violence such as an armed robbery, war, or terrorism

Commonly overlooked causes of potential emotional and psychological trauma can also include:

  • Breakup or divorce in a significant relationship
  • Significantly humiliating experienced
  • Surgery
  • Falls or injuries due to sports
  • Sudden, unexpected death of a loved one
  • Diagnosis of a life-threatening or disabling condition

It’s important to note that other, less severe but ultimately stress-inducing situations can also trigger traumatic reactions in some men and women.

Signs and Symptoms of Emotional Trauma

Signs and symptoms of emotional trauma

Many people experience strong physical or emotional reactions immediately following the experience of a traumatic event. Most people will notice that their feelings dissipate over the course of a few days or weeks. However, for some individuals, the symptoms of psychological trauma may be increasingly severe and last longer. This may be the result of the nature of the traumatic event, availability of emotional support, past and present life stressors, personality types, and available coping mechanisms. Some of the most common symptoms of psychological trauma may include the following:

Cognitive:

  • Intrusive thoughts of the event that may occur out of the blue
  • Nightmares
  • Visual images of the event
  • Loss of memory and concentration abilities
  • Disorientation
  • Confusion
  • Mood swings

Behavioral:

  • Avoidance of activities or places that trigger memories of the event
  • Social isolation and withdrawal
  • Lack of interest in previously-enjoyable activities

Physical:

  • Easily startled
  • Tremendous fatigue and exhaustion
  • Tachycardia
  • Edginess
  • Insomnia
  • Chronic muscle patterns
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • Vague complaints of aches and pains throughout the body
  • Extreme alertness; always on the lookout for warnings of potential danger

Psychological:

  • Overwhelming fear
  • Obsessive and compulsive behaviors
  • Detachment from other people and emotions
  • Emotional numbing
  • Depression
  • Guilt – especially if one lived while others perished
  • Shame
  • Emotional shock
  • Disbelief
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks

Effects

Effects of untreated psychological trauma

Many people go for years living with the symptoms of emotional and psychological trauma as their world grows steadily smaller. The effects of untreated psychological trauma can be devastating and infiltrate nearly every aspect of an individual’s life. Some of the most common effects of untreated trauma include:

  • Substance abuse
  • Alcoholism
  • Sexual problems
  • Inability to maintain healthy close relationships or choose appropriate people to be friends with
  • Hostility
  • Constant arguments with loved ones
  • Social withdrawal
  • Constant feelings of being threatened
  • Self-destructive behaviors
  • Impulsive behaviors
  • Uncontrollable reactive thoughts
  • Inability to make healthy occupational or lifestyle choices
  • Dissociative symptoms
  • Feelings of depression, shame, hopelessness, or despair
  • Feeling ineffective
  • Feeling as though one is permanently damaged
  • Loss of former belief systems
  • Compulsive behavioral patterns

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