Survivors of trauma are everywhere among us, sometimes in our own families. Whether the trauma involved witnessing or experiencing a violent event, surviving a natural disaster, returning home after serving our country as a member of the armed forces in an area of intense, unrelenting combat, struggling to come to grips with life after prolonged domestic or partner abuse, or trying to put the pieces back together after childhood years of physical and/or sexual abuse, neglect or abandonment, the result is the same: trying to mend a life shattered by trauma.
It’s one thing to read statistics of victims of trauma, see news segments on returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or talk with a friend about a mutual acquaintance who’s struggling following a traumatic event. If the event doesn’t directly touch you, maybe you turn a blind eye. On the other hand, knowing that trauma is so devastating to both the trauma victim and his or her family members, friends and co-workers, maybe you want to help, but aren’t sure what to do. One thing that is certain is that untreated trauma diminishes quality of life for the trauma survivor and those closest to him or her and may lead to suicidal thoughts and actions.
To help those directly or indirectly affected by trauma, it’s first necessary to recognize the common signs of trauma.
What Is Trauma?
The American Psychiatric Association (APA)1 defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” The APA goes on to say that denial and shock are typical after a traumatic event. Furthermore, unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, frayed relationships and physical symptoms are some commonly experienced long-term effects of trauma.
PTSD is a disorder2 whose symptoms may not appear until several months or years after the occurrence of the traumatic event. Three main types of symptoms for PTSD include re-experiencing, emotional numbness, and increased arousal (difficulty sleeping, easily irritated and angered).
Statistics from the National Center for PTSD3 are quite eye-opening: In any given year, about 8 million adults have PTSD, and this is only a small portion of those who’ve experienced trauma. In 2015, trauma was the number one cause of death4 for Americans between 1 and 44 years of age and the number three cause of death for Americans aged 45 to 64.
Common Signs and Symptoms of Trauma
While trauma affects each person differently, depending on the type of trauma, age of the traumatized individual, how long ago the trauma happened or whether it’s an ongoing traumatic experience and several other factors. Still, there are some common signs and symptoms of trauma that can help you recognize that trauma may be present in your loved one, family member or friend.
Emotional Signs of Trauma:
- Episodes of lost time or dissociation
- Hopelessness or despair
- Low self-esteem
- Isolation from others
- Intense feeling of abandonment or loss
- Desire to inflict harm self-harm
- Loss of meaning to live or sense of purpose
- Distorted sense of self or body image
- Feeling alienated from others or emotional numbness
- Chronic fatigue, insomnia, lethargy, loss of interest in normal activities
- Chronic anger or resentment
- Poor impulse control
- Obsessive thoughts or worries of an unwanted nature
- Night terrors, flashbacks, nightmares
- Inability to organize, plan or make decisions
Physical Symptoms of Trauma:
- Increased use of alcohol and/or drugs to numb the pain from intense feelings and try to cope
- Deliberate avoidance of situations that trigger traumatic memories
- Angry outbursts, crying, blaming others for their situation
- Wanting to be alone, staying away from friends
- No longer participating in formerly enjoyed activities
- Paleness, lethargy, fatigue
- An inability to cope in certain situations
What You Can Do to Help
Expecting or suggesting to a trauma survivor that he or she just get over it, that the feelings will pass is not helpful or effective. Granted, the passage of time may blur some of the recurring memories, but only professional trauma recovery can help the individual begin to heal from the effects of trauma. When substance abuse and/or a mental health disorder co-occur with the trauma or PTSD, the self-destructive spiral can only be reversed with a professional trauma recovery program.
Encourage your loved one, family member or friend to seek treatment for trauma and/or PTSD. Start with a visit to the doctor for a referral or check out treatment resources available from the National Center for PTSD5. Treatment at a residential rehab center that specializes in trauma treatment, or a long-term rehab center that can help the individual with co-occurring substance abuse, mental health disorder and trauma or PTSD to heal is strongly recommended.
It cannot be stressed enough that one of the most important parts of a trauma recovery program is that it provides a safe environment for healing to occur. One of the major hurdles for trauma patients is reducing shame and painful memories and perceptions as they explore and learn to cope with their traumatic issues.
There are numerous available treatments for trauma and PTSD. Some are of a short-term nature, while others continue for a longer period. Treatments that may be included in a personalized trauma recovery program include:
- Cognitive Processing Therapy7 (a type of cognitive behavioral therapy)
- Prolonged Exposure Therapy for PTSD8
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)9
- Medications for PTSD10
- Stress Inoculation Training for PTSD11
- Role Playing, Assertiveness Training12
- Stress Management13
- Mindfulness-based Trauma Therapy14
- Meditation15 and Yoga
Recognize that the person affected by trauma will take some time to heal. Unrealistic expectations of a quick recovery, pushing the trauma survivor beyond his or her readiness and capability and badgering, over-protectiveness, ignoring or dismissing very real symptoms won’t help. What will help includes steadfast family support and encouragement during the healing process17. In addition, loved ones and family members may benefit from undergoing family treatment at the same time their loved one goes through trauma recovery.
Help your loved one set realistic goals for him or herself, instead of trying to accomplish too much at one time. Break tasks into smaller chunks so they’re more accommodating. Encourage spending time with close friends and participating in activities that are comforting, non-threatening and allow time for relaxing. During trauma recovery, such activities are a part of the therapeutic program and should be continued following completion of treatment.