Trauma 101: What You Need to Know

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For many individuals, speaking openly about trauma, whether their own or someone else’s, is unheard of. There is a stigma behind trauma that marks it as too sensitive of a topic to learn about in school or talk about at the dinner table, as it brings up negative feelings like shame or anxiety.

Although it is true that trauma is sometimes difficult to talk about, it is a topic that is necessary to learn about, as it affects so many peoples’ lives. Not only must we learn what trauma is and how it can present itself, but we also must learn how to properly provide care and support to those who are currently suffering from trauma, as it helps survivors rebuild a sense of control and empowerment. 

What is trauma?

“Trauma” is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that can overwhelm a person’s ability to cope, cause feelings of hopelessness, and/or diminish their sense of self and their ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences [1]. If I were to ask you to bring up a few examples of an event that would be traumatic to anyone involved, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were to picture a car accident, a death, or a terrorist attack.

Although all of these examples surely may cause trauma in the people involved, distressing events affect everyone differently. One person could experience a car accident and carry on completely unaffected later on in life, while another person could experience that same car accident and never set foot in a car again due to traumatic stress. Likewise, not all traumatic events must be life-threatening.

It is important to note that seemingly “smaller-scale” adverse experiences, like parental divorce, bullying, sexual harassment, or witnessing community violence can be deeply distressing for individuals involved. There is no such thing as something not being “bad enough” to be considered trauma–any event or situation that has caused deep distress and diminished one’s ability to cope and carry on counts as trauma.

What does trauma “look like”? 

Trauma responses differ greatly across individuals, but some commonly researched responses have been present in the majority of trauma survivors to some degree. These responses can be split into emotional signs, behaviors, physical symptoms, and psychological disorders. Emotional signs of trauma include feeling a heightened degree of sadness, anger, denial, fear, and/or shame.

These emotional signs can lead to behaviors that attempt to deal with these maladaptive feelings, most of which are consequently maladaptive themselves: hypervigilance (an elevated sense of stress to assess surroundings in fear of immediate threat or danger), nightmares, insomnia, difficulty with relationships/isolation, and emotional outbursts. Along with emotional and behavioral responses, physical symptoms may also be present, such as nausea, dizziness, changes in appetite, headaches, and gastrointestinal issues.

Finally, trauma is known to be a big contributor to the development of various psychological disorders. Just because you experienced/are experiencing trauma does not mean you are destined to develop one of these disorders, but it does put you at an increased risk. The possible disorders are Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Depression, Anxiety, Acute Stress Disorder, dissociative disorders, and substance abuse issues. Keep in mind, the degree to which someone experiences any of these symptoms depends on the specific person, as well as their level of vulnerability. 

Vulnerability, and why it matters: 

As mentioned above, one’s susceptibility to traumatic stress and the severity of symptoms that come with it is significantly correlated to their level of vulnerability [2]. Likewise, their ability to cope with trauma is also dependent on their level of resilience to this vulnerability. According to the Oxford Dictionary, vulnerability is defined as the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally [3].

Thinking logically, those who are more likely to be exposed, or vulnerable, to being attacked or harmed (physically and/or emotionally) are more susceptible, or vulnerable, to experiencing a traumatic event. For example, although anyone can potentially experience an act of violence, someone who lives in an unsafe area where community violence is more prevalent is more likely to experience this than someone living in a very safe neighborhood. Additionally, people of color are susceptible to racial trauma.

Likewise, people who are fortunate to have a support system and access to therapy/resources are more likely to cope effectively with trauma. On the other hand, someone who may not be surrounded by individuals with their best interests at heart (or any individuals at all) and/or lack the privilege of affording therapy/resources will likely not be able to cope as well. In the end, trauma is both effected by and affects one’s state of being tremendously, and it is important to consider this when understanding how someone is dealing with trauma. 

Trauma and Therapy: 

Therapy has been known to help tremendously with coping with trauma. Nowadays, more and more therapy practices are becoming trauma-informed, which means that they are trained to professionally support someone experiencing trauma. Trauma therapy will likely teach their client how to deal with the following items while supporting them every step of the way.

First, they will teach the client how to improve their coping skills for them to function positively in life. They will also help the client build trust in others and the world around them, as the client’s sense of safety and security is likely shattered due to the traumatic event. Together, the therapist and client will challenge problematic beliefs, including about the world around them, their relationships, and/or themselves.

Finally, the therapist will offer validation, making sure the client understands and believes that their feelings and experiences are/were valid and help the client know they’re not alone. According to a 2018 study[4] by Watkins and colleagues, there was a significant amount of evidence to conclude that trauma-focused therapy was effective in treating PTSD and other trauma-related disorders.

What can you do to help someone struggling?

The ultimate advice therapists can provide in helping someone who is struggling with trauma is to support them in any way possible. A great way to find out what you can do to help is simply asking them, “Can I do anything to help?” Remember, the individual themself will most likely know best what they need, and hopefully will offer some suggestions of what you can do to support them (whether it be a listening ear or a distraction).

This is a great place to start, but in case you need some more suggestions, here are a few ways that are likely to help someone who is experiencing trauma symptoms: 

  • Be an active listener. Do not judge, pry, or infer. Listen wholeheartedly and believe what they say. 
  • Be patient. Give the person time to disclose information, if they choose to at all. This is not a place for rushing or pressure. 
  • Only give advice if you are asked to. In times when a friend is upset, it’s almost second nature for us to offer advice on how to “fix” whatever is troubling them. However, giving unsolicited advice may make it seem like their trauma is easily solvable, which often isn’t the case. 
  • Learn their triggers. For example, if someone was just attacked by someone with a gun, it’s probably best not to watch a war movie with them. Be mindful and considerate. 
  • Help them find resources. If they are open to therapy, doing some research on trauma-focused therapy offices near them can be super helpful. If they are open to helpful books, I recommend this one on trauma-informed yoga
  • Take care of yourself. Supporting someone dealing with trauma can negatively affect your own mental health, especially when you are actively worried about them. Make sure you practice self-care along the way and take a step back if you are finding your mental wellbeing deteriorating.

Resources Used: 

[1] Alex. “What Is Trauma? – Definition, Symptoms, Responses, Types & Therapy.” Unyte Integrated Listening, Unyte Integrated Listening, 17 Feb. 2022, https://integratedlistening.com/what-is-trauma/. 

[2]Brewin CR, Andrews B, Valentine JD. Meta-analysis of risk factors for posttraumatic stress disorder in trauma-exposed adults. J Consult Clin Psychol (2000) 68(5):748–66. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.68.5.748

[3] Watkins LE, Sprang KR, Rothbaum BO. Treating PTSD: a review of evidence-based psychotherapy interventions. Front Behav Neurosci. 2018;12:258. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00258

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