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Impacts of Trauma

TRAUMA according to the Oxford Dictionary is “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience... from which the emotional shock may lead to long-term neurosis”. The American Psychological Association (APA) says that trauma “is the emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster”. The word is derived from the Greek term for “wound”.

The effect of trauma poses significant stress on our bodies and on our mental health. The psychological effect of trauma requires careful management and therapy. In some cases where the trauma is extreme, it might feel as if the brain has shut down or the body has stopped functioning normally.

Often a traumatic experience is one where there is exposure to a threat to life, or one’s personal safety, but it can also be experienced from less extreme circumstances including bullying, violence, loss or conflict.

The age at which a trauma is experienced may also influence brain function. Childhood trauma may have lasting effects that require careful management. Whether the experience is a one-off event, multiple events or an ongoing repetitive event the impact can be different for each individual.

The PHYSICAL indicators of trauma include excessive alertness, fatigue, exhaustion, disturbed sleep and even general aches and pains.

COGNITIVE symptoms of trauma include intrusive thoughts and memories, visual memories of the event, nightmares, poor concentration or memory, disorientation and even confusion.

The BEHAVIOURAL consequences of trauma may include avoidance of places or activities where the traumatic event occurred, social withdrawal, isolation or lack of interest in the person’s normal activities.

The EMOTIONAL signs of trauma include: fear, detachment, guilt, depression, anger, anxiety and even panic attacks.

The initial impacts of trauma include a mix of all of these symptoms. The greater the impact of the trauma the more intense the reaction; severe dissociation, ongoing continued distress without remittance, and repeated memories of the event.

Further symptoms including sleep disorders, nightmares, fatigue, flashbacks and emotional avoidance and are also recorded as trauma responses.

Most people who are exposed to trauma display some of these responses immediately after the event, and with support from family and friends or a professional, these responses can usually be resolved without any severe long-term effects.

However, some may ultimately present with more ongoing symptoms potentially leading to a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which requires more specific treatment. Other people who have experienced a similar trauma may show more resilience or coping skills and thus fall outside of any potential diagnosis.

BRAIN FUNCTION is affected by traumatic stress, it is “wounded” by it. The areas of the brain most affected by trauma are the amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. In simple terms, the amygdala is part of the limbic system and is what is termed the emotional brain, where emotions are given meaning and are regulated. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that plays an important part in learning and memory, it is the part of the brain that regulates memory recall. The prefrontal cortex is the thinking brain, it controls cognitive behaviours, decision making and social behaviours.

Memory is certainly one area that is deeply affected by trauma, either in the way that the brain blocks out a memory, or conversely how the brain finds a certain memory to be indelible. These indelible memories are usually ones that are overwhelming and the brain (hippocampus) may choose to elaborate certain parts of the memory or piece together the sequence of events differently. These memories may also come at unexpected times causing further distress and anxiety. Perhaps there is an ongoing feeling of numbness or emptiness. Continued experience of distressing emotions or physical symptoms like feeling agitated or tense. Interrupted sleep, nightmares or flashbacks. Possibly even the temptation to turn to alcohol or drugs to numb the pain of the memory.

If you or your friends notice an inability to manage any intense feelings or physical sensations relating to a trauma, it is best to seek professional help, especially if any of the symptoms described above last more than a couple of weeks.

A trained specialist would be able to help you develop effective coping strategies and techniques to lessen the impact of the trauma.

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