There are moments in life when things happen to us that we don’t know how to handle. It could be an accident, the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, a mugging, being the victim of sexual abuse, or suffering an extremely humiliating experience. These events usually generate very intense emotions and can cause psychological or emotional trauma.
What is a psychological trauma?
The definition of trauma is: An emotional shock that produces lasting damage to the unconscious or a strong and lasting negative emotion or impression.
Trauma is an emotional shock that produces lasting damage in the unconscious, although it can also be a strong and constant negative emotion or impression. It usually appears when we are exposed to a potentially traumatic situation, that is, a stressful and threatening situation that has overwhelmed our coping mechanisms. It arises when we have suffered a very intense fear and we have felt incapable of managing it.
However, all traumas are not the result of a specific episode. Sometimes a “cumulative trauma” occurs, the result of having been exposed for a long period of time to situations that we have not been able to accept or manage.
In both cases, the basic mechanism is the same: emotions overwhelm us and traumatic experiences are not integrated into our “self,” but rather remain active, usually at an unconscious level, manifesting itself through psychosomatic problems, worries, or dysfunctional behaviors.
How to know if you are suffering from emotional trauma
After experiencing a traumatic episode, the brain goes into shock and most often you remember everything that happened to you over and over again in a never ending loop. Your conscious mind deletes it, which will make you feel like it has not left sequels. This occurs when the trauma is too painful, so a dissociation mechanism kicks in to prevent you from suffering too much, although that doesn’t mean trauma hasn’t occurred.
There are different symptoms that may indicate the existence of these traumas:
- Insomnia and nightmares at night. It is likely that you remember the traumatic event during the night. You can remember isolated details or relive the whole experience again.
- Greater irritability. You show yourself to be more sensitive to any circumstance, mainly to those that resemble the situation that has caused the emotional trauma.
- Anxiety and nervousness. In recent times you feel nervous, anxious and apprehensive about almost anything. It is likely that you are always alert, in a state of tension, as if something bad were going to happen at any moment.
- Fear. You have developed a fear of different situations, even the most normal day-to-day ones. You are also likely to startle easily and overrespond to stimuli.
- Confusion and difficulty concentrating. You have problems finding your daily rhythm, you feel confused and it is difficult for you to concentrate.
- Feeling of guilt and shame. Sometimes victims feel a deep sense of shame because they believe that the traumatic event was their fault.
- Or you could be very angry and blame others for what happened. emotional indifference. Perhaps you have begun to feel that nothing matters to you, the activities that you were passionate about before have ceased to interest you and you feel disconnected from your emotions
Causes of emotional trauma
Traumatic experiences overwhelm us, to such an extent that they break our psychological balance. This means that what may be traumatic for some may not be for others.
Obviously, there are some traumatic situations that have a great emotional impact on most people, such as physical or psychological abuse, a particularly dangerous accident, abuse, the death of a very close person, and illnesses that leave serious consequences.
Even so, it is estimated that 64% of people who are exposed to traumatic episodes will not develop a psychological disorder. There are some factors that increase the chances of suffering a trauma:
- Existence of psychological problems prior to the traumatic situation, such as suffering from chronic stress, anxiety or depression.
- Experiential avoidance, which involves an effort to avoid memories, feelings, or thoughts related to the traumatic event, in such a way that it only perpetuates the suffering
How a trauma is recorded in the brain
Traumatic experiences are sustained by a kind of emotional short circuit. When we experience a traumatic episode and we don’t have the necessary psychological tools to deal with the problem, the emotional part of our brain sounds the alarm and disconnects the rational part. In some cases, this disconnection is so great that the memory is erased from conscious memory. However, that doesn’t mean the emotional trauma goes away.
Neuroscientists from Harvard University found that painful traces remain etched in the brain, but in the wrong area. In practice, people who cannot leave behind their traumatic past, relive painful experiences as if they were a real situation. That is why, in order to overcome a trauma, it is necessary to turn it into a narrative experience, which means that you must process what happened, reduce its emotional impact and store it in the part of the brain destined for autobiographical memories.
The consequences of emotional trauma
The origin of many psychological problems is found in emotional traumas. When we fail to overcome a trauma, different disorders can appear that will affect our performance and quality of life.
Anxiety. Anxiety is a disorder linked to fear, so it is usual that after a traumatic episode you develop a hypervigilant and apprehensive attitude that gives way to anxiety.
- Depression. When the trauma is very great, you can experience a deep feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. You can lose joy and the reasons to live, so you could develop depression and even have suicidal ideas.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder. The trauma is relived in the form of recurring and involuntary distressing memories that cause great discomfort. In some cases, dissociative reactions may appear in which you lose contact with reality and believe that the traumatic events are really happening.
- Social isolation. Out of fear of a similar event happening again, you may gradually limit your social activities and isolate yourself.
- Dissociative disorders. Dissociation is a clear symptom of having suffered an emotional trauma, because it is an automatic response from our brain to disconnect from pain
How to overcome a trauma. Psychological treatment
Since traumas are related to emotions, reasoning and language are usually not very effective. That is why it is necessary to resort to techniques that work directly on the unconscious and the emotional part of the brain, where the traumatic shock occurs.
Although exposure therapy is the trauma treatment par excellence, it is fundamental that before embarking on exposure to trauma-enducing stimuli, that a safe space is created, where empathetic listening and validation can help to forge a space where the person experiencing trauma feels in control and prepared to embark on the healing process.
Cognitive processing therapy
Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) is based on the idea that immediately following a trauma, you were probably not able to fully process what happened to you.
In trying to understand the event and how it affected you, you might later come to conclusions that are not healthy.
You might, for example, decide that it’s not safe to trust anyone, or you might believe that you’re to blame for what happened.
CPT aims to identify those incorrect conclusions and restructure them in healthier ways. This kind of therapy usually takes place in around 12 sessions, during which you and your therapist work together to process what happened through talking or writing about the experience.
Prolonged exposure therapy
Like CPT, prolonged exposure therapy addresses the tendency to adopt unhealthy thinking patterns in the aftermath of a traumatic event.
For example, as a result of trauma, you may have developed a fear response that’s out of proportion to the dangers you face.
To change your fear response, prolonged exposure therapy begins with some education about PTSD symptoms. Your therapist will equip you with skills to calm down and cope when you face something frightening.
Once you’ve learned self-calming techniques you and your therapist will create a hierarchy of fears.
You’ll start with things you find slightly scary and progress to more intense fears — possibly those related to the trauma you experienced. You will not progress to the next level on your hierarchy until you and your therapist are satisfied you can handle each one.
Over several months of treatment, you and your therapist will work together to help you face your fears, allowing you to practice new coping skills.
You’ll learn that your thoughts and memories related to the trauma are not actually dangerous and do not need to be avoided.
Many of the long-term effects of PTSD are neurological. For that reason, treatments that focus on the brain and nervous system have been found to be particularly effective at restoring function and reducing symptoms.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
Eye movement and desensitization processing is a therapy that uses repetitive eye movements to interrupt and re-pattern some of the trauma-related memories you have.
After talking about your history, you and your therapist will select a memory that you find particularly difficult.
While you bring the details of that memory to mind, your therapist will guide you through a series of side-to-side eye movements. As you learn to process the memory and related feelings it brings up, you’ll gradually be able to reframe that memory in a more positive light.
Research found that when provided by an experienced therapist, EMDR can help reduce many symptoms of PTSD, including anxiety, depression, fatigue, and paranoid thought patterns.
It’s a low-cost therapy, has few if any side effects, and is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) for treatment of PTSD.
The American Psychological Association (APA) recommends certain antidepressants for the treatment of PTSD symptoms.
The APA notes that the most common medications used for PTSD treatment are selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors such as:
It’s important to note that paroxetine and sertraline are the only FDA approved SSRIs to treat PTSD.
What you can do to help yourself
- Journaling: Research has shown that writing about traumatic events is short sessions can significantly reduce the symptoms of PTSD and when combined with other therapies can reduce the length of the therapy. Writing has also shown improvements in depression, anxiety and help lower blood pressure.
- Yoga or meditation: Studies have shown that Yoga and meditation work well as complimentary therapies along with more conventional psychological therapies. They both help in regulating bodily functions such as breathing, create awareness to mood states and increase resilience to uncomfortable emotions
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