Psychological trauma is a type of damage to the psyche that occurs as a result of severely distressing event/s.
Trauma, which means “wound” in Greek, is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved with that experience. A traumatic event involves one experience, or repeating events with the sense of being overwhelmed that can be delayed by weeks, years, or even decades as the person struggles to cope with the immediate circumstances, eventually leading to serious, long-term negative consequences, often overlooked even by mental health professionals: “If clinicians fail to look through a trauma lens and to conceptualize client problems as related possibly to current or past trauma, they may fail to see that trauma victims, young and old, organize much of their lives around repetitive patterns of reliving and warding off traumatic memories, reminders, and affects.”
Trauma can be caused by a wide variety of events, but there are a few common aspects. There is frequently a violation of the person’s familiar ideas about the world and of their human rights, putting the person in a state of extreme confusion and insecurity. This is also seen when institutions that are depended upon for survival, violate or betray or disillusion the person in some unforeseen way.
Psychologically traumatic experiences often involve physical trauma that threatens one’s survival and sense of security. Typical causes and dangers of psychological trauma include harassment, embarrassment, sexual abuse, employment discrimination, police brutality, bullying, domestic violence, indoctrination, being the victim of an alcoholic parent, the threat of either, or the witnessing of either, particularly in childhood, life-threatening medical conditions, medication-induced trauma. Catastrophic natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, war or other mass violence can also cause psychological trauma. Long-term exposure to situations such as extreme poverty or milder forms of abuse, such as verbal abuse, exist independently of physical trauma but still generate psychological trauma.
Childhood trauma can increase one’s risk for psychological disorders including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and substance abuse. Childhood adversity is associated with heightened neuroticism during adulthood. Parts of the brain in a growing child are developing in a sequential and hierarchical order, from least complex to most complex. The brains neurons are designed to change in response to the constant external signals and stimulation, receiving and storing new information. This allows the brain to continually respond to its surroundings and promote survival. Our five main sensory signals contribute to the developing brain structure and its function. Infants and children begin to create internal representations of their external environment shortly after birth. The more frequent a specific pattern of brain neurons is activated, the more permanent the internal representation associated with the pattern becomes. This causes sensitization in the brain towards the specific neural network. Because of this sensitization, the neural pattern can be activated by decreasingly less external stimuli. Childhood abuse tends to have the most complications with long-term effects out of all forms of trauma because it occurs during the most sensitive and critical stages of psychological development.
People who go through these types of extremely traumatic experiences often have certain symptoms and problems afterward. How severe these symptoms are depends on the person, the type of trauma involved, and the emotional support they receive from others. Reactions to and symptoms of trauma can be wide and varied, and differ in severity from person to person. A traumatized individual may experience one or several of them.
After a traumatic experience, a person may re-experience the trauma mentally and physically, hence avoiding trauma reminders, also called triggers, as this can be uncomfortable and even painful. They may turn to psychoactive substances including alcohol to try to escape the feelings. Re-experiencing symptoms are a sign that the body and mind are actively struggling to cope with the traumatic experience.
Triggers and cues act as reminders of the trauma, and can cause anxiety and other associated emotions. Often the person can be completely unaware of what these triggers are. In many cases this may lead a person suffering from traumatic disorders to engage in disruptive or self-destructive coping mechanisms, often without being fully aware of the nature or causes of their own actions. Panic attacks are an example of a psychosomatic response to such emotional triggers, which can sometimes lead to severe-case psychosis.
Consequently, intense feelings of anger may frequently surface, sometimes in inappropriate or unexpected situations, as danger may always seem to be present, as much as it is actually present and experienced from past events. Upsetting memories such as images, thoughts, or flashbacks may haunt the person, and nightmares may be frequent. Insomnia may occur as lurking fears and insecurity keep the person vigilant and on the lookout for danger, both day and night. Trauma doesn’t only cause changes in one’s daily functions but could also lead to morphological changes. Such epigenetic changes can be passed on to the next generations, thus making genetics as one of the components of the causes of psychological trauma. However, some people are born or later develop protective factors such as genetics and sex that help lower their risk of psychological trauma.
The person may not remember what actually happened, while emotions experienced during the trauma may be re-experienced without the person understanding why (see Repressed memory). This can lead to the traumatic events being constantly experienced as if they were happening in the present, preventing the subject from gaining perspective on the experience. This can produce a pattern of prolonged periods of acute arousal punctuated by periods of physical and mental exhaustion.
In time, emotional exhaustion may set in, leading to distraction, and clear thinking may be difficult or impossible. Emotional detachment, as well as dissociation or “numbing out”, can frequently occur. Dissociating from the painful emotion includes numbing all emotion, and the person may seem emotionally flat, preoccupied, distant, or cold. The person can become confused in ordinary situations and have memory problems.
Some traumatized people may feel permanently damaged when trauma symptoms do not go away and they do not believe their situation will improve. This can lead to feelings of despair, loss of self-esteem, and frequently depression. If important aspects of the person’s self and world understanding have been violated, the person may call their own identity into question. Often despite their best efforts, traumatized parents may have difficulty assisting their child with emotion regulation, attribution of meaning, and containment of post-traumatic fear in the wake of the child’s traumatization, leading to adverse consequences for the child.