A majority of Americans will experience at least one traumatic event at some point in their lives, and for many, the psychological effects are profound and long-lasting.
The Effects of Trauma
If you’ve experienced an extremely disturbing or stressful event that made you feel helpless or very fearful, then you may have a trauma disorder. The National Council for Behavioral Health reports that about 70 percent of adults in the United States, or roughly 223 million people, have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives. These events can be defined as experiences that evoke feelings of intense horror, fear or helplessness; in many cases, these are experiences that put you or someone very close to you at risk of harm or death.
At their core, traumatic events are those that reshape the way you perceive the world around you. Oftentimes, they create in you a sense of lost hope, limited expectations about your life’s potential and even fear that your life may end abruptly or early.
Common sources of trauma may include:
- Car accidents
- Acts of war or violence or prolonged abuse
- Natural disasters
- Serious illnesses
The initial warning signs of trauma often include feelings of exhaustion, confusion, anxiety, sadness, numbness or, on the flip side, a heightened sense of awareness. These feelings are healthy and normal responses to abnormal events.
However, some people experience more severe signs of trauma, even when the danger has long passed. Long-term trauma symptoms include continuous feelings of agitation or distress, dissociating from the event and intense memories of the event. In some cases, you may experience delayed signs of trauma in the form of sleep disorders, fear of experiencing the traumatic event again, depression and avoiding emotions activities that could be associated with the trauma.
What Are the Signs of Trauma?
We all respond to trauma in different ways, and while there are no “right” or “wrong” ways to come to terms with significant events, there are some common trauma signs and symptoms.
Emotional and psychological trauma symptoms include:
- Confusion and difficulty staying on task
- Denial or shock
- Anger, irritability and difficulty regulating mood
- Fear and anxiety
- Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
- Feeling withdrawn and disconnected from people and everyday life
Trauma doesn’t only affect our mental health but can also disrupt our physical health. In fact, studies have shown a direct correlation between trauma and health conditions like Type 2 diabetes, COPD, heart disease, high blood pressure and even cancer. It’s not surprising, then, that many trauma traits are physical. These include:
- Racing heartbeat
- Muscle tension
- Aches and pains
- Being started easily
Recognizing Trauma Signs and Symptoms in Others
Living in the aftermath of trauma can take a serious toll on relationships. If someone you’re close to has experienced a significant event that has altered their sense of safety, security and self, it’s natural for it to also alter the way they function around others.
It can be difficult to understand your loved one’s behavior; you may feel like you’re walking on eggshells or even that you no longer know them. If it’s a spouse or partner that you live with, then you may find yourself taking on more household chores and responsibilities because they lack the energy, motivation or interest of handling their share in your household’s typical division of labor.
Trauma signs to watch for in a loved one include:
- Sleeping more or less than normal
- Disordered eating, including eating too much or too little
- Unexplained outbursts of anger
- Difficulty focusing on projects at home and at work
- Difficulty tracking conversations
- Obsessive worrying
It may be hard to not take trauma symptoms in a loved one personally, but it’s important to remember that their ability to control their behavior is limited. Mentally and even physically, your loved one may be “stuck” in a sense of danger and high alert, which can lead to anger, mistrust and depression. Your loved one may benefit from professional help, but in the meantime, providing social support, being a good listener and building trust and a sense of safety can help them move forward.
How to Know if You Have Trauma or Something Else
Oftentimes, trauma traits in adults and children can closely mimic other mental illnesses like depression, which doesn’t necessarily have external causes or influences.
A bout of depression is a common experience; virtually everyone will experience depression at one point in their lives, and for many people, depression comes and goes over the years. It can come without warning, or it may worsen during times of stress, like financial difficulties or the breakup of an important relationship. Common symptoms include unusual sleep patterns, overeating or lack of appetite, difficulty focusing and receiving no pleasure from activities you usually enjoy.
Trauma, on the other hand, usually happens after you go through a life-threatening event, such as sexual assault, domestic violence or abuse. In many cases, the signs of trauma are connected to exposure to sights, sounds or experiences that remind you of the event. For example, if you were in a serious car accident, then you may experience severe anxiety at the thought of driving.
The Types of Trauma
Trauma can be divided into three categories: acute trauma, chronic trauma and complex trauma.
Acute trauma is associated with a single event that takes place in your life. For example, this type of trauma could come in the form of witnessing or being the victim of an act of violence, theft or any experience that shakes your sense of safety and security. This type of trauma is often connected to post-traumatic stress disorder and has a variety of symptoms, including:
- Extreme anxiety or panic attacks
- Feelings of being disconnected from your surroundings
- Lack of self-care
- Inability to focus at work
- Unusual sleeping patterns
By contrast, chronic trauma is associated with events that occur over and over again, such as war or combat situations or living in a domestically violent environment. A military veteran that has been involved in active combat over an extended period of time, for example, may have a hard time reacclimating to civilian life. While reactions to acute trauma are often immediate, reactions to chronic trauma may not be evident for months or even years. Common signs of chronic trauma include:
- Denying the impact or extent of a traumatic event or even that it happened at all
- Overreacting to certain stimulants and situations
- Misperceptions about their environment
- Impaired memories
- Inability to sleep
Complex trauma is typically associated with early childhood. It’s similar to chronic trauma in that the events were recurring. However, with complex trauma, the events happened through actions or inactions of someone that the child should be able to trust. For example, a child who has experienced ongoing abuse or profound neglect may experience trauma traits, even after they are removed from the abusive situation. Complex trauma can have a lifelong impact; in cases of ongoing abuse, the brain may have missed out on important developmental milestones because its resources were spent developing survival mechanisms.
Complex trauma symptoms may include:
- Difficulty building attachments with others
- Physical ailments and chronic illnesses, both as children and as adults
- Engaging in risky behaviors
- Difficulty identifying, expressing and managing emotions
- Dissociating from the abuse or event
- Lack of impulse control
- Difficulty with problem solving
There are numerous surveys and questionnaires that are designed to assess for trauma and post-trauma traits, some of which you can fill out independently. Depending on the level of detail assessments like these require, it is entirely possible to self-diagnose trauma disorders. Understanding how traumatic events in your life may impact the way you see the world around you and being proactive in addressing trauma is the first step in moving forward.