There are two types of trauma — physical and mental. Physical trauma includes the body’s response to serious injury and threat. Mental trauma includes frightening thoughts and painful feelings. They are the mind’s response to serious injury. Mental trauma can produce strong feelings. It can also produce extreme behavior; such as intense fear or helplessness, withdrawal or detachment, lack of concentration, irritability, sleep disturbance, aggression, hyper vigilance (intensely watching for more distressing events), or flashbacks (sense that event is reoccurring).
A response could be fear. It could be fear that a loved one will be hurt or killed. It is believed that more direct exposures to traumatic events causes greater harm. For instance, in a school shooting, an injured student will probably be more severely affected emotionally than a student who was in another part of the building. However, second-hand exposure to violence can also be traumatic. This includes witnessing violence such as seeing or hearing about death and destruction after a building is bombed or a plane crashes.
Causes of emotional or psychological trauma
An event will most likely lead to emotional or psychological trauma if:
- It happened unexpectedly.
- You were unprepared for it.
- You felt powerless to prevent it.
- It happened repeatedly.
- Someone was intentionally cruel.
- It happened in childhood.
Emotional and psychological trauma can be caused by single-blow, one-time events, such as a horrible accident, a natural disaster, or a violent attack. Trauma can also stem from ongoing, relentless stress, such as living in a crime-ridden neighborhood or struggling with cancer.
Symptoms of emotional and psychological trauma
Following a traumatic event, or repeated trauma, people react in different ways, experiencing a wide range of physical and emotional reactions. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to think, feel, or respond to trauma, so don’t judge your own reactions or those of other people. Your responses are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL events.
Emotional and psychological symptoms of trauma:
- Shock, denial, or disbelief
- Anger, irritability, mood swings
- Guilt, shame, self-blame
- Feeling sad or hopeless
- Confusion, difficulty concentrating
- Anxiety and fear
- Withdrawing from others
- Feeling disconnected or numb
- Insomnia or nightmares
- Being startled easily
- Racing heartbeat
- Aches and pains
- Difficulty concentrating
- Edginess and agitation
- Muscle tension
Physical symptoms of trauma:
These symptoms and feelings typically last from a few days to a few months, gradually fading as you process the trauma. But even when you’re feeling better, you may be troubled from time to time by painful memories or emotions–especially in response to triggers such as an anniversary of the event or an image, sound, or situation that reminds you of the traumatic experience.
Helping someone deal with emotional and psychological trauma
It can be difficult to know how to help a loved one who’s suffered a traumatic or distressing experience, but your support can be a crucial factor in their recovery.
- Be patient and understanding. Healing from emotional or psychological trauma takes time. Be patient with the pace of recovery and remember that everyone’s response to trauma is different. Don’t judge your loved one’s reaction against your own response or anyone else’s.
- Offer practical support to help your loved one get back into a normal routine. That may mean help with collecting groceries or housework, for example, or simply being available to talk or listen.
- Don’t pressure your loved one into talking but be available when they want to talk. Some trauma survivors find it difficult to talk about what happened. Don’t force your loved one to open up but let them know you are there to listen whenever they feel ready.
- Help your loved one to socialize and relax. Encourage them to participate in physical exercise, seek out friends, and pursue hobbies and other activities that bring them pleasure. Take a fitness class together or set a regular lunch date with friends.
- Don’t take the trauma symptoms personally. Your loved one may become angry, irritable, withdrawn, or emotionally distant. Remember that this is a result of the trauma and may not have anything to do with you or your relationship.
One way of processing and dealing with Trauma is with EMDR.
What is EMDR?
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) incorporates elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy with bilateral eye movements or other forms of rhythmic, leftright stimulation. One of the key elements of EMDR is “dual stimulation.” During treatment, you are asked to think or talk about memories, triggers, and painful emotions while simultaneously focusing on your therapist’s moving finger or another form of bilateral stimuli.
In a typical EMDR therapy session, you focus on traumatic memories and associated negative emotions and beliefs while tracking your therapist’s moving finger with your eyes as it moves back and forth across your field of vision.
Other forms of external stimuli that may be used in EMDR therapy include bilateral tactile sensations and sounds (e.g. alternating hand taps or a chime that pans back and forth from ear to ear).
How does EMDR therapy work?
At the time of a traumatic event, strong emotions interfere with our ability to completely process the experience and one moment becomes “frozen in time.” Recalling the traumatic event may feel as though the person is reliving the event all over again because the images, smells, sounds, and feelings are still there and can be triggered in the present. When activated, these memories cause a negative impact on our daily functioning and interfere with the way we see ourselves and our world, and how we relate to others. EMDR therapy appears to directly affect the brain, “unfreezing” the traumatic memories, allowing you to resolve them. Over time the disturbing memory and associated beliefs, feelings, sensations become “digested” or worked through until you are able to think about the event without reliving it. The memory is still there, but it is less upsetting.
The exact mechanism for the effectiveness of EMDR is yet unknown. It appears that using rapid eye movements relieves the anxiety associated with the trauma so that the original event can be examined from a more detached perspective, somewhat like watching a movie of what happened. This enables you to access positive ways of reframing the original trauma (reprocessing), and to release the body’s stored negative emotional charges around it (desensitization).
Some experts have noted that the eye movements involved in EMDR might be similar to what occurs naturally during dreaming or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. It may be thought of as a physiologically-based therapy that allows a person to see material in a new and less distressing way. Others believe it reactivates parts of the brain that were “shut down” as a coping mechanism. In this way cognitive reorganizing takes place, allowing the negative, painful emotions to give way to more resolved, empowered feelings.