By Mona Cattan
Q: What is trauma?
A: Trauma can be defined as witnessing or experiencing something horrific, where you are afraid that you or someone else is at risk of injury or death. In the long-term, trauma can impact physical, emotional and mental health. Trauma may include such varied experiences as the destruction of prized possessions, loss of freedoms or lack of safety or security. Most frequently, traumatic experiences are connected to abuse, abandonment or neglect, and may be physical or emotional in nature.
Q: How is emotional trauma different from trauma?
A: Emotional trauma refers specifically to damage to the mind and emotions that occurs as a result of one or more distressing events or experiences. Emotional trauma is often the result of overwhelming levels of stress that exceed an individual’s ability to cope. It may result from a single distressing experience or from recurring experiences and often leads to serious, long-term negative consequences.
Q: What are Adverse Childhood Experiences?
A: Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) are traumatic experiences that happen when we are young and can have a profound impact on our memory, health and well-being. Those who have experienced ACE’s often have impaired immune systems where the body’s ability to fight disease and infection is compromised. ACE’s also aﬀect the structural and functional development of the brain’s neural networks, and these changes can impact memory in middle age and lead to dementia later in life. Additionally, long term eﬀects include speeded up processes of aging and disease.
Q: How is emotional trauma related to memory loss?
A: Stress experienced from a traumatic event or series of events causes an increase in levels of adrenaline and cortisol, two stress hormones tied to survival. Chronically high levels of stress, especially combined with conditions that threaten our physical and psychological well-being (toxic stress), result in sustained and elevated stress hormones. This cortisol “bath” often leads to adrenal fatigue, insomnia or hypersomnia, learning diﬃculties, poor memory and diﬃculty making decisions.
Some people experience prolonged periods of arousal or agitation followed by mental, emotional and/or physical exhaustion and burnout. During these periods, memory can falter and it can become difficult to perform even simple tasks. Trauma changes the brain and its chemistry, and these changes can be passed on to the next generation, during pregnancy and in infancy.
Q: How do I know if I’ve experienced something traumatic?
A: The severity of symptoms in response to trauma depends on the individual, the type of trauma, and other factors. If an individual has experienced trauma, they may display a variety of symptoms and behaviors. (Including but not limited to)
- Intrusive and recurring thoughts or memories – can’t push it out of mind for very long
- Flashbacks – can range from brief distractions, loss of awareness, feeling disoriented
- Detachment from self and others – inability to express emotions, lack of empathy or avoiding or unable to form connections on an emotional level
- Recurrent nightmares or night terrors
- Re-experiencing or the sense of reliving past event(s) including body sensations
- Difficulty integrating and/or making sense of what has happened
- Struggling to cope
- Intense feelings of anger, sadness, fear – inappropriate, incongruent or disproportionate to current events
- Anxiety/panic disorders and/or various mood disorders/depression especially if they don’t respond well to medications or traditional talk therapies
- Hypervigilance, i.e. difficulty or inability to relax or let down your guard
- Feeling insecure, never safe, inability to trust
- Difficulty establishing or maintaining healthy, loving, safe and respectful relationships, including low self-esteem, lack of self-worth and poor boundaries
Q: Why are some people more likely to develop PTSD?
A: We know that people react differently to similar traumatic events. It may be related to objective factors such as the age of the individual when they experienced the event, whether they experienced a single or multiple events, the type of event, and whether or not they had a support system to help them recover from the experience.
Some individuals may be more emotionally resilient in coping with traumatic experiences. They may have a greater ability to actively seek help. In other words, not all people who experience a potentially traumatic event will become psychologically or emotionally impacted nor at the same level even if experiencing the same event.
It is possible for some people to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after being exposed to a single major traumatic event. The more events, the more likely that PTSD will develop.
Q: How do I know if I need help?
A: If you are experiencing any of the symptoms AND they are causing signiﬁcant distress or problems in your ability to function at home, school, or work, and especially if you are having diﬃculty in relationships, talk to a mental health specialist, particularly a trauma-informed clinician.
Q: What kinds of help can I get if I think I’ve experienced emotional trauma?
A: A mental health specialist can work with you to understand your history and experiences, evaluate your symptoms, and develop a treatment plan that may include medications and a combination of trauma therapy approaches. While medications can change body chemistry, trauma therapy can change the neural pathways in the brain, creating new patterns of beliefs, thoughts, emotions and behaviors.
A therapy known as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing) uses a patient’s rapid eye movements to dampen the power of emotionally charged memories of past traumatic events. In a separate article, Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk discusses another innovative approach to trauma therapy called Somatic Experiencing, which focuses on releasing the traumatic energy that is stored in the body. The encouraging news is that, with the therapeutic options now available, recovery from trauma is possible.
Q: Is there anything else I can do that might help me recover from trauma?
A: Understand that you were victimized – things happened to you, and these things have had a significant impact on you. At the same time, it’s important to decide that you will not allow these past events to control you any longer, and to find help and support. Be aware of your own negative self-talk and try to be kind to yourself.
Educate yourself on trauma, so that once you find the support and treatment that’s right for you, you can become an active participant.
Be open to considering medications your therapist may recommend, especially initially, because these can help stabilize your symptoms and give you a stronger foundation to build on. If a medication isn’t working for you, let your doctor know, and be careful not to discontinue medications without consulting your doctor or pharmacist.
Lastly, remember the important basics: get restorative sleep, maintain a healthy diet, spend time in nature, and stay physically active in ways that you enjoy.
Mona Cattan is a Health & Wellness coach as well as an experienced therapist who has worked with individuals, families and groups with a diverse range of mental/behavioral issues including anxiety, depression, trauma, addictions, codependency and eating disorders. She has counseled active and retired members of the military and their dependents. Mona resides in Louisville, KY where she has a private virtual practice.