Home Mental Health What is psychological trauma? What are the 5 signs of psychological trauma?

What is psychological trauma? What are the 5 signs of psychological trauma?

written by Vidya Sury January 11, 2022
What is psychological trauma 5 signs of psychological trauma

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Psychological trauma occurs when someone experiences or sees a disturbing or life-threatening situation where their physical or psychological wellbeing feels threatened. Mental trauma can affect one’s ability to cope with even their normal routine. It is important to understand and recognize the signs of psychological trauma, their effect on the brain, and what treatment options are available so that immediate action can be taken for recovery.

Psychological trauma can leave you with long-lasting mental scars as well as physical health problems. Research into the impact of trauma is still developing and we still do not yet have a full understanding of how it can manifest itself. Many people are suffering from health problems without realizing that they are rooted in past trauma, and this makes it much harder for them to find treatments that really work for them.

What are the common emotional trauma symptoms?

Each person’s response to trauma can be different depending on the source of the trauma and the effect can be distressful for one while not so much for another. Trauma sources can be:

  • Violent events such as terrorism, armed robbery
  • Natural disasters such as fires, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes
  • Rape and child abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Death of a loved one
  • Accidents at the workplace or vehicle accidents
  • Relationship breakups
  • Serious illness or disability
  • A humiliating experience
  • Falls and injuries from sports

One does not always need to be present at an event that induces trauma. Seeing something from a distance can also be traumatic. Whatever the source or cause, those who go through traumatic events are shaken and disoriented and may not respond normally to conversations.

Psychological trauma can be longer-lasting in the following circumstances:

  • If the event was unexpected and shocking and the person was not prepared for it
  • The person is unable to prevent the event
  • The event recurs again and again. An example is child abuse and domestic violence
  • Extreme cruelty is involved
  • When the event occurs during the early childhood years

Signs of psychological trauma - effect on brain

How does psychological trauma affect the brain?

The effects of trauma make the autonomic nervous system go off-balance, creating a long-lasting “fight or flight” response. In turn, the parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite of what it is supposed to do—checks out when it is supposed to be active or becomes active when it is supposed to rest, resulting in all the symptoms of psychological trauma.

Trauma affects specific parts of the brain—the hippocampus, amygdala, and the anterior cingulate cortex. These are associated with our memory, emotion, thought, sense of self, and conflict resolution. When there are changes to metabolic activity, neurotransmitter levels, and neuron health, these aggravate the levels of stress in trauma survivors.

Signs of psychological trauma

Being able to recognize the key signs of psychological trauma can help you identify whether you or somebody close to you needs help.

1. Psychological issues

Panic attacks, anxiety, anger, irritability, obsessive and compulsive behavior, shock, fear, emotional numbness, depression; there can also be shame and guilt involved if the person with the trauma was part of the incident and survived when others did not.

Depression and Anxiety

Many people who have experienced trauma will end up with symptoms of depression or anxiety. Often these conditions are accompanied by other symptoms, such as panic attacks, self-destructive behavior, social withdrawal, fatigue, and memory problems.

Becoming very easily frightened or startled is another sign that somebody may be affected by emotional trauma. This can cause regular anxiety and fearfulness even when there is little objective reason to be scared in a particular situation.

There are, of course, a number of reasons why somebody might develop these mental health conditions, but trauma is often the cause.

What is psychological trauma How to recognize the signs

2. Substance Abuse

Another sign of trauma is the development of substance abuse disorders. People often use drugs or alcohol as a way to try and numb their emotional pain, so if somebody you know suddenly starts abusing substances, it may be an indication that they are suffering from some unresolved psychological issues. That’s why addiction treatment programs usually include counseling and therapy sessions to help people deal with the emotional cause of their addiction. If substance abuse is not managed early on, it will continue to spiral out of control, so it should never be ignored.

3. Cognitive changes

These can be in the form of intrusive thoughts, nightmares, recurring thoughts about the event, a sense of confusion, memory issues, problems with focusing, and mood swings.

Intrusive Thoughts and Nightmares

People who have experienced trauma tend to experience persistent and sometimes disturbing thoughts about the event. These are commonly referred to as ‘flashbacks’. A flashback is when an individual involuntarily relives some or all of the traumatic events in their mind. However, everybody reacts to trauma differently and flashbacks can also present as nightmares or simple intrusive thoughts that, although distressing, are not directly linked to the traumatic event itself. If you find that you are having recurring nightmares linked to something that happened in your past, it is likely that you are struggling with trauma.

4. Altered behavioral patterns

A tendency to avoid people and places that trigger memories of the experiences as well as withdrawing from family and friends; Avoiding activities that were once enjoyed.

Avoidance of Triggering Situations

Another indicator of trauma is the avoidance of things that remind somebody of what happened. This can affect somebody’s personal, professional and social life in a number of ways. If they avoid certain places or certain people who are triggers for painful memories it will obviously make them less happy and may cause problems with their relationships. Often, people do not do this consciously. Instead, they find themselves avoiding triggers without understanding why. When they do come into contact with these triggers, they feel a sense of fear or anxiety that seemingly comes from nowhere. This is especially common in people that have repressed the memory of the traumatic event.

Signs of psychological trauma - fatigue

5. Physical problems

These can be sleep issues, edginess, palpitations, body aches without reason, inability to be intimate, muscle tension, fatigue, and problems with eating patterns.

These signs can persist for a long time after the traumatic event has occurred. Trauma is hard for loved ones as it can be quite hard to help someone who is withdrawn.

Noticing some of these indicators of trauma can help people seek the right treatment for their mental and physical health issues by dealing with the underlying trauma that causes them.

Can you recover from psychological trauma?

Trauma can have both short- and long-term effects and these are best addressed as soon as possible to improve the chances of recovery.

Recovery is possible through prescription medication to ease the symptoms of psychological trauma. Psychotherapy can help with processing painful events and teach coping strategies.

Signs of psychological trauma counseling help

Over time, some people can recover from traumatic experiences with the help and support of family and friends. However, some develop more serious conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety disorders. When symptoms are severe and last longer than a few weeks, it is important to seek professional help.

Further reading: Understanding the impact of trauma

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