Trauma – What is it?


Trauma is a word which covers a huge spectrum of experiences from a road traffic accident to an acrimonious divorce, to severe life-changing illness. Most of us will have experienced trauma at some point in our lives, sometimes without actually putting a name to it. You might not think that Bereavement comes under the heading of trauma, however if someone you love dies suddenly, or in distressing circumstances, then this can be a very traumatic experience.  Major surgery  to eliminate disease or repair physical injury, can definitely be listed under the heading of trauma.  Losing your job, home and or financial security are also traumatic events.  The dictionary definition of trauma describes it as:

  • A deeply distressing or disturbing experience.
  • Emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may lead to long-term neurosis.

You don’t actually need to have experienced something first hand to be traumatised. Being witness to accidents/death or abuse can lead to trauma just the same as if it had happened to you. We call this vicarious trauma, because after witnessing the traumatic incident, it is then internalised and can cause the same symptoms as if it had actually happened to you.

Neuro science still has a long way to go in understanding why some people recover from trauma within a few weeks and don’t have any long-lasting symptoms of anxiety or stress and others experience severe symptoms which last months and sometimes years. If someone is still struggling with symptoms more than a month after the traumatic event, they can be said to be suffering with post traumatic stress.  We do know that this is more likely to happen if a person has experienced multiple trauma over a short or long period of time.

An unusual factor in trauma, is that the symptoms don’t always appear immediately after a distressing experience. It can take years for them to surface. This is because our brains have ways of protecting us from painful memories, so that we can continue to live our lives apparently untouched by what we have been through. However, because of the way our brains store traumatic memories, the trauma can be triggered by a seemingly unconnected event years later.

Clients often come to therapy feeling very anxious and stressed, but not always able to pinpoint the cause of their distress. This is because the traumatic memories may have been repressed and stored deep down in the unconscious brain.  However, this is not always the case. Some clients have clear memories of the traumatic event and find themselves unable to switch off unwanted memories and images, which they find acutely distressing.

If you have an unpleasant, distressing memory which you can’t erase from your memory or you’re aware of feeling very anxious following a recent event and it seems out of all proportion to what’s happened, then trauma may be at the bottom of it. We can’t escape trauma in our lives, it’s learning how to change our response to it that makes all the difference.

Look out for Part 2 of this Blog on Trauma, recognising the symptoms and how you can change to your response to it.




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