The word trauma is used to describe many feelings and circumstances. People can be traumatized by divorce, workplace harassment, the death of someone close to us, being sexually assaulted, experiencing a fire, or natural disaster, as an example.
- "True" trauma occurs when the body reacts by turning on its "fight, flight or freeze" automatic pilot in response to situations involving intense fear, helplessness, or horror.
- "True" trauma is not the same as severe distress. It occurs when a person is exposed to real or perceived danger, directly (for self) or indirectly (for other) that results in an extreme set of physiological and psychological responses.
Traumatic events are characterized by:
- Threat to life and limb;
- Severe harm and/or injury;
- Being intentionally harmed or injured by someone;
- Exposure to grotesque, violent or sudden loss of a loved one;
- Witnessing or learning of violence to a loved one; and/or
- Causing death or severe injury to another.
Common Causes of Post-Traumatic Stress
There are certain factors that can increase vulnerability to post-traumatic stress:
- Witnessing domestic violence.
- Fear and fundamental lack of safety in children living with chronic parental addiction or other situations causing anxiety, fear and insecurity.
- Losing access to an absent parent or to a primary caregiver whoever that person may have been e.g. grandparent, aunt, etc.
- Being arrested or being kept in isolation in a custodial facility.
- Being the victim of peer violence, emotional, or physical.
- Witnessing or having knowledge of the suicide or suicide attempt of a family member or friend.
General Reactions to Trauma and Loss
Reactions to trauma are not solely determined by events. There are a number of other factors including the nature and magnitude of previous losses and trauma (especially childhood trauma) and coping strategies.
- Trauma experiences can affect how we function in all areas of our lives.
- There is no one "standard" pattern of reactions to the extreme stress of traumatic experiences. Some people respond immediately, others have delayed reactions over a period of weeks, months and even years.
- Some people experience adverse effects for a long period of time while others recover quite quickly. Serious life events such as deaths, suicide, murder, sexual assault, war, etc., are experiences that we do not just "get over." They may leave long-lasting scars.
- All loss involves some degree of trauma and all traumas involve a substantial amount of loss and grief.
Myths and Truths about Trauma
Myth: If it looks OK on the outside, it must be OK on the inside.
Truth: Showing no response or little response to trauma events is often a sign someone is coping through denial. Most reactions to trauma are normal in the short term, whether they are intense emotional reactions or avoidance and numbing reactions.
Myth: Trauma symptoms are a sign of dysfunction.
Truth: Trauma symptoms are functional and a sign of a person's system trying to re-establish its balance. They are signs of health not illness and reflect the need to recognize the reality and impact of the trauma and also to deny what is overwhelming and unbearable.
Myth: Loss, grief and trauma are the same thing.
Truth: Trauma is often in addition to the grief process, and may interfere with grieving and mourning if it is not addressed separately.
Myth: We should wait until victims seek help.
Truth: Victims of trauma are struggling to maintain or re-establish a sense of balance and want to appear as competent and in control as possible. Seeking out help may be difficult and victims will benefit from support and immediate trauma intervention.
The roles of health professionals in responding to trauma include:
- Treatment; and
- Consultation to other service providers who have the primary responsibility for intervening and supporting clients experiencing post-trauma stress.
For help with post-traumatic stress, contact Mental Health Services in your community.