Accidents, assaults, a natural disaster, going through a relationship breakup, witnessing a violent event, having your savings wiped out, your identity stolen, or repeatedly being bullied at school— these are, unfortunately, stories prominently reported on the daily news. They’re also examples of traumatic events. But what happens to those who survive the trauma, and how do they know when to seek help for trauma?
Experiencing Some Symptoms
Fear, having recurring nightmares, being startled by loud noises, avoiding certain areas because something unpleasant happened there— many people have experienced some of these symptoms associated with trauma. Not everyone, though, knows when they should get help after a traumatic event.
After living through a life-threatening event or a natural disaster, most people will experience intense, emotional or physical reactions to what happened. These may become less troublesome and dissipate after a few days or weeks, although some trauma survivors continue to have symptoms that become increasingly severe and persist for months or longer.
Although it may seem obvious that you’d seek help when it becomes difficult to carry out everyday functions, you may tell yourself that you’re just fine, believing you’ll get better on your own. Yet, when trauma symptoms seriously disrupt your life, you’re not helping yourself by denying the facts. Mental health experts recommend seeking help for trauma as soon as you notice a constellation of symptoms, as well as symptoms that do not dissipate but instead increase in frequency and intensity. The sooner you seek help for trauma, the sooner you’ll be able to effectively manage trauma symptoms and cope with the triggers that may prompt their return.
When is Something a “Trauma”?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, “trauma” is “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” This could be a single traumatic event or a series of events of a traumatic nature. Trauma typically occurs after an experience that leaves the person feeling powerless, hopeless, and likely afraid. There doesn’t need to be any physical harm for trauma to develop since trauma is the result of the individual’s subjective, emotional experience of the distressing event. The more fearful and helpless a person’s response to the event is, the more likely they’ve been traumatized.
Effects of Ignoring Symptoms
No good outcome ever results from ignoring symptoms, whether it’s denying the existence of physical symptoms or emotional and psychological ones. This holds true for any medical and mental health diagnosis. (A mental health diagnosis is a guide for treatment; it doesn’t define you.) When someone has experienced trauma of any kind, ignoring symptoms only causes the trauma to go deeper, metastasizing like a cancer. In addition to intensification and greater frequency of trauma symptoms, untreated trauma often leads to self-medicating with prescription and illicit drugs, as well as excessive alcohol consumption, all in an attempt to escape the pain.
Other common effects of ignoring trauma symptoms include:
- Increasing feelings of hostility
- Difficulty with relationships
- Feeling constantly threatened
- Experiencing reactive thoughts that are uncontrollable
- Dissociative symptoms
- Argumentativeness, angry outbreaks
- Compulsive behaviors
- Self-destructive behaviors
- Isolation and social withdrawal
- Sexual difficulty
Could the Symptoms Be Caused by Something Else?
It might not be trauma that’s causing your symptoms, though. Perhaps it’s something else that makes you jumpy, irritable, feeling guilt or shame, wanting to be alone. You could have an anxiety or depressive disorder or another type of mental illness.
A psychiatrist may diagnose acute stress disorder when a person goes through a time of intense stress or experiences trauma that is of brief duration— lasting a few days or a week or two, and producing symptoms typical of trauma.
First responders, medical professionals and others whose jobs put them in frequent encounters with dangerous and traumatic events may be diagnosed with occupational stress disorder or occupational stress injury. These individuals are also at higher risk for anxiety, depression, even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Any trauma may be accompanied by or have as co-occurring issues behavioral problems, addictions, substance abuse, sleep difficulties, chronic pain or other physical issues.
The only way to know for sure what’s causing your cluster of symptoms is to see a mental health professional for a comprehensive diagnosis.
Should You Get Diagnosed?/What is the Diagnosis if You Need Trauma Treatment?
Before you can get the right kind of help to overcome the trauma, you need to get diagnosed by a mental health professional. You can begin by seeing your regular doctor, who will likely refer you to a mental health professional for a more comprehensive diagnosis. Ideally, you should seek help at a facility or center that specializes in trauma treatment. There, you’ll have a team of doctors and nurses, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, support staff and social workers with training and expertise in trauma treatment to assist you.
These are licensed mental health professionals who’ve had specific supervision, training and clinical experience working with those who have trauma. The trauma specialist should have treated multiple cases of trauma. They should be trained in at least one, but preferably more, evidence-based trauma treatments: cognitive processing therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.
Getting diagnosed involves undergoing various assessments and tests. First, there’ll be a medical exam to determine if there’s a medical condition causing the symptoms. If there is, treatment may be able to address those symptoms.
A psychiatric evaluation helps assess current, emotional state and determine if there may be any co-occurring, mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, mood disorder, or substance abuse.
After the results of the evaluations and tests are available, the treatment team can prepare a plan of treatment that will address all of your needs.
For example, your diagnosis may be complex trauma. Or, it could be emotional trauma. If the individual is a child, there’s the possibility of childhood or developmental trauma that can have lifelong repercussions, if not addressed and treated. A 2016 study published in the journal, Clinical Psychology Review, found that traumatic life events (TLEs) are “robust environmental risk factors for development of psychosis,” with overall odds of adolescents or adults with histories of TLEs developing psychotic disorder ranging between 2.78 and 11.50.
Fears of Being Diagnosed/Seeing Therapists
Everyone tends to fear the unknown. Not knowing what happens during a visit to a therapist prior to entering treatment for trauma can be physically, emotionally and psychologically challenging. The best way to overcome a fear of being diagnosed with trauma or of going to a therapist for the diagnosis and possible treatment is to educate yourself on what therapy is.
The APA defines psychotherapy as “talk therapy,” a way for individuals to discuss with a trained professional what’s bothering them, to help with a number of emotional problems and mental illnesses. Psychotherapy can help you to learn to cope with or stop certain symptoms that are causing you difficulty in everyday life. As for psychiatry, there are different types, so finding a psychotherapist that utilizes evidence-based, trauma treatment is best for diagnosis and treatment of trauma. Psychiatrists and psychotherapists often combine elements of several treatment approaches to obtain the best results.
What happens during therapy? This is a collaborative relationship between the therapist and the individual seeking therapy, where the psychologist provides a supportive environment that is conducive to open discussions without fear of judgment or bias. Together, you work to identify behavior and thought patterns causing difficulties and change them to more appropriate ones.
Therapy may involve combining psychoanalysis with medication. The APA states that about 75 percent of those who participate in psychotherapy say they receive some benefit from their treatment.
A Better Life is Possible
Whether or not seeking help for trauma means you begin therapy and medication, your life can likely be improved by a medical professional. Although the pain you experienced may not completely dissipate, what will more likely happen is that your relationship with that trauma-related pain will change. It will no longer be all that you think about, dominating your every waking moment and casting a shadow over everything you do. Instead, you will learn to develop resiliency that builds over time, enabling you to weather difficult times and maintain a sense of control over that part of your past (and present). A better life is indeed possible, and the first step can begin now. Contact FHE Health at (855) 548-0844 and speak with one of our compassionate counselors to get the help you need.