A Call for Better Recognizing Trauma

Traumatic events can be caused by a singular occasion, or a form of ongoing, relentless stresses. An event is more prone to leave an individual with longer-lasting emotional and psychological trauma if:

  • The individual was unprepared for the event
  • The event occurred out of the blue
  • The person felt powerless to prevent the event or felt powerless during the event
  • The event occurred repeatedly
  • If the event involved extreme cruelty
  • If the event occurred during the childhood years

Traumatic events are defined as events that are both powerful and upsetting that can cause problems in the daily life of a person. These events are threatening to one or more of persons dimensions: physical, mental, emotional, and, in some cases, spiritual.The impact of event, or series of events, depends on the individual and typically depends on past traumatic experiences, presence of coping skills, and level of social and emotional support at the time of the traumatic event.

Traumatic events are NOT reserved for combat veterans or victims of extreme abuse. We all hear the stories and watch the movies about the war veterans having PTSD and the all too frequent 20/20 or Dateline episodes about a child who was abducted and raped or physically, mentally, and emotionally abused. Yes, these situations are certainly traumatic and can qualify someone for trauma and stress related disorders. And these are not the only situations that are qualified as traumatic.

There are a wide range of situations considered “normal” that can be traumatic and cause trauma-like symptoms. These situations are not typically associated with “trauma” because they are situations that we can typically hear about on a daily basis. Divorce or relationship break-up, humiliating experiences, sports injuries, being turned down for countless jobs, being inappropriately criticized by a loved one or boss, being shamed by a loved one or boss, bullying, etc. The list could probably go on for days and be added to frequently.

How do you know if an event was traumatic for you? Well, the event, or series of events, has to be extremely stressful for you during. Then, after the event(s) are over, typically there are cognitive symptoms that are most frequently associated with trauma:

  • Intrusive thoughts of the event out of the blue
  • Nightmares
  • Visual images of the event
  • Loss of memory and concentration abilities
  • Disorientation
  • Confusion
  • Mood Swings

There are behavioral symptoms associated with trauma:

  • Avoidance of activities or places that trigger memories of the event
  • Social Isolation and withdrawal
  • Lack of interest in previously enjoyable activities

The physical symptoms associated with trauma include:

  • Being easily startled
  • Tremendous fatigue or exhaustion
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Nervous irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • Vague complains of aches and pains throughout the body
  • Extreme alertness, always on the lookout for warnings of potential danger, that may be out of proportion to the current threat
  • Fight, flight, or freeze response

The psychological (emotional) symptoms associated with trauma include:

  • Overwhelming fear and anxiety
  • Obsessive and compulsive behaviors
  • Detachment from other people and emotions
  • Emotional numbing
  • Depression
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Emotional shock
  • Disbelief
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Panic attacks

So, why am I writing about this? Well, in my experience as a mental health professional (currently a licensed counselor and a crisis specialist), trauma is often not understood and not considered as the cause of underlying issues. It’s not just parents, teachers, family members, and victims that don’t understand and recognize, it’s professionals too. I’ve personally seen mental health professionals write off a child as just simply being a “behavioral issue” and “needing to be disciplined.” I’ve seen mental health professionals write off adults as “whiney” and “attention seeking.” I’ve seen mental health professionals diagnose anxiety disorders, depression disorders, and bipolar in trauma victims. We slap labels on them and treat the mood issues with ineffective interventions because we are not treating the underlying problem. Which is, you guessed it, TRAUMA.

Trauma is well known to cause behavioral issues in children and adolescents. Trauma is well known to cause addiction, mood stability issues, work, and incarceration related issues in adults. If you find yourself thinking that a child is just a “bad kid” or an adult is just “whiney, attention seeking, or lazy” stop and consider that the probability is that the presenting symptoms are stemming from untreated trauma. No intervention is going to successfully treat the symptoms until the underlying trauma is treated.

We need better Trauma Informed Care in our mental health, physical health, spiritual health, and correctional systems. We need better education regarding the physical, mental, and emotional effects of trauma. We need better awareness of the wide variety of situations that are considered trauma. We need better linkage to the correct treatment and correct interventions.

We need better.

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