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Trauma Series Part 1: What is Trauma?

by Lauren Cain, M.A.

Welcome to the first of a three-part mini-series discussing trauma. Today, we'll discuss what trauma is and go over signs of PTSD, along with some tips for coping in the aftermath of a trauma.

So, what is trauma?

Trauma as a word sounds kind of scary to some people. We think of it as something dramatic and intense, like being in combat or getting robbed at gunpoint. While those things can certainly be traumatic, they aren’t the only ways we experience trauma.

The fact is, most of us have experienced trauma in our lives. Falling off your bike for the first time, being in a car accident, having a loved one pass away, being embarrassed in front of your class – these can all be considered traumatic experiences.

While many of us are able to recover from these events fairly easily, every person reacts differently to a trauma. Some kids never get back on their bike after falling. Some may need to take some time away from bicycles until they are ready to try again. Some take the fall as a learning experience and are ready to get back on immediately. And yes, some people will experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after one of these events. All of these responses are valid and different for everyone.

We also need to consider that something you consider traumatic may not be to another person and vice versa. For example, if you were in a car accident with a friend one of you may describe the event as terrifying and traumatic, while the other may experience it as “an inconvenience.” Again, neither response is right or wrong.

Our responses are often shaped by various factors, such as whether we have a solid support system in place, whether we’ve learned ways to cope with strong emotions, whether we learned early in life that the world is a safe place, and whether we’ve experienced other traumatic events in the past.

What do post-traumatic stress symptoms look like?

While some people may recover from a traumatic experience quickly, others may develop distressing symptoms that are more long-lasting. While some traumatic experiences can be easier to talk about, others will be more difficult to discuss. Emotional and physical violence, abduction, sexual assault, witnessing a death – these traumatic experiences can be more difficult to talk about, so we may not always know when someone needs help. This is why being able to recognize signs that someone is suffering the effects of trauma is so important.

Common symptoms of post-traumatic stress can include:

· Recurrent and distressing memories or dreams of the traumatic event

· Flashbacks or feeling like you are experiencing the event again

· Distress when exposed to something that resembles the event (places, words, songs, etc.)

· Avoidance of memories, thoughts, feelings, and other reminders of the event

· Memory loss of the event

· Negative mood or persistent negative thoughts or beliefs

· Self-blame or distorted blaming of others for what happened

· Persistent feelings of fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame related to the event

· Lack of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable

· Isolation or feeling distant from others

· Irritability or angry outbursts

· Risky behaviors (self-harm, risky sex, erratic driving, gambling, etc.)

· Being hyper-aware of surroundings and/or being easily startled

· Difficulty concentrating

· Sleep problems

If you or someone you care about displays any of the symptoms above, it is wise to seek treatment from a trained professional therapist or psychologist.

How can you cope with trauma?

Because trauma is such a personal experience, finding what works for you can be difficult. Fortunately, there are several options and ways to cope with trauma so that you can begin to heal in a way that makes sense for you.

Here are some treatment options to consider if you or someone you know has experienced a traumatic event and/or experiencing post-traumatic symptoms:

· Seek professional help. Most therapists have training and experience with treating trauma (though you can always ask if you’re looking for a therapist with a specific background). Therapy will help you learn skills for coping with the effects of the trauma, heal from what you’ve experienced, and learn to see the experience as one chapter of your story—not the entire thing. It is vital to find a therapist who makes you feel safe and understood, and who lets you go at your own pace without pushing you to get into the details of your trauma before you feel ready to talk about it.

· Use your support system. Talk about the trauma with someone you trust, or simply share your feelings without getting into the details if you aren’t ready to do so. Spend time with people who make you feel respected, cared about, and supported. It may feel tempting to isolate yourself or avoid close relationships when you’ve been traumatized, but seeking meaningful connection can actually help you heal and remind you that not everyone is going to hurt you.

· Attend a Group. There are many wonderful therapy groups and support groups specifically for trauma survivors. These groups can help you process your experiences, learn helpful ways to heal, and connect with others who have been through something similar. This can help you feel connected to a community and remind you that you never have to go through life’s hardships alone.

· Be kind to your body. Make sure you are prioritizing your basic needs, including your need for sufficient sleep, food, water, and physical activity. Take your medications as prescribed. Be mindful of your drug, alcohol, and caffeine use. Physical health can greatly impact mental health, and ensuring that you are managing your physical health effectively will help you have the energy and stability necessary for healing.

If you’re looking for an empathetic, educated, and sensitive approach to treating trauma, our therapists are here for you. Feel free to reach out today and set up a brief phone consultation (free of charge!) or an in-person intake session (e-mail:

Stay tuned for more in a few weeks: Part two of this series will discuss how to help a loved one who has experienced trauma.


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