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Understanding the Effects of Trauma

Trauma can strike suddenly, unexpectedly, or gradually. It can be recognized and treated, or it can be denied and suppressed in the “just get over it” scenario. Improving Lives Counseling Services‘ mental health professionals uncover the truth about trauma and its long-term effects in this blog. 

TRAUMA – TYPE AND CAUSES

Trauma affects the part of the brain that regulates emotions, memory, and the fight/flight response. Trauma physically affects the autonomic nervous system, which includes blood vessels, kidneys, the abdomen, breathing, the heart, and digestive glands. Physical symptoms of trauma include fatigue, panic, and long-term illness.

Acute trauma results from a single traumatic event, chronic trauma from a more prolonged event, and complex trauma by numerous events. Not everyone responds to trauma in the same way, however, there are certain life events which go beyond stressful – damaging the psyche and emerging as a traumatic event. Child abuse, spousal abuse, sexual abuse, earthquakes, tornadoes, fires, plane crashes, automobile accidents, street crime, and sudden death of a family member are examples of psychological trauma – distressing and tremendously frightening events.

Emotional trauma can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Gaslighting, school or workplace violence, verbal abuse, spiritual abuse, a dysfunctional parent/child relationship, homelessness, chronic illness, neglect, poverty, diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, diagnosis of a mental illness, and bullying are examples of experiences that can leave a person feeling helpless, fearful, insecure, or unsafe. 

Hearing a gunshot from their kitchen table or witnessing gunfights on their way to school can cause a lifetime of psychological trauma. Children, adolescents, and teenagers who are subjected to racism, sexism, degrading jokes, religious abuse, comments about appearance, learning, and/or social victimization can suffer from emotional trauma well into adulthood.

POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER

The mental health community has expanded the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to include any incident or traumatic event “that causes physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual harm in which a person has difficulty recovering after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event.” Once considered a psychological disorder suffered by military members involved in combat, victims of child abuse, and spousal and sexual abuse have also received diagnoses of PTSD.

Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops PTSD. A study of Vietnam War Veterans found only eight percent of men and twenty percent of women assigned to combat zones experienced PTSD. They found that “the two biggest factors were childhood abuse prior to the war, and a pre-existing mental health issue other than PTSD, along with the age of exposure to the trauma made a difference. Younger soldiers exposed to combat were much more likely to develop lingering PTSD than older soldiers…. NIH 2019”. Other studies have attributed PTSD to culture, ethnicity, and genetics – how a specific religious population or ethnic group responds to fear and/or terror. Higher rates of long-term PTSD were reported in certain minority and religious groups due to a history of racism and religious discrimination.

TRAUMA AND MEMORY

Trauma can shut down the episodic memory preventing images, words, and sounds from various parts of the brain from forming or recalling a memory. Episodic memory is defined as: “a type of long-term memory that involves conscious recollection of previous experiences together with their context in terms of time, place, and associated emotions.” The hippocampus which helps us remember facts and events can be damaged by stress or anxiety when experiencing a traumatic event. Because traumatic memories disconnect from the part of the brain which conducts reasoning and storage of information, normal memory encoding is disrupted, making the part of the brain that conducts reasoning unable to properly function. Due to this cognitive decline, victims of collective traumas such as mass killings, terrorist attacks, riots, and insurrections often embrace conspiracy theories.

Implicit memories, false memories, dissociative amnesia, explicit memories, and semantic memories (which store factual information) are all affected by traumatic experiences and events.

TREATMENT OPTIONS AVAILABLE

The counselors, therapists, and clinicians of Improving Lives Counseling Services develop treatment plans meeting the specific needs of each client. There is no one-size-fits-all in treating trauma clients – whether the client experienced the trauma alone or as part of a collective. Therapies such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Therapy, also called restructuring, concentrates on the memory of the event, teaching the client to think in a different way. Body-based or the Trauma Resiliency Model concentrates on the physical effects of stress (the nervous system). Teaching meditation, calming exercises, and breathing techniques are used in treating the parasympathetic nervous system (part of the autonomic nervous system), reducing panic, anger, and hyperactivity.

Unresolved trauma can cause flashbacks, chronic stress, anxiety, and depression – which can lead to drug abuse, substance abuse, promiscuity, criminal acts, and suicidality. If you or someone you care about is experiencing nightmares, troubling daydreams, separation anxiety, fearfulness, aggressive behavior, trouble concentrating, behavior disorders, sadness, symptoms of depression, or traumatic triggers, they are not alone. They too can live the life they were meant to live. Let us help. Call (918) 960-7582