Trauma is such a loaded word, and I think a very misunderstood one. What is trauma, and how does someone know if they have been traumatized? One of the leading researches who studies trauma is Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD who offers this definition: “A trauma is when your biology (physiology) is assaulted in such a way that you may not be able to reset yourself.” So, according to this definition, it is less about what happens and more about how people are impacted by the event.
The biology of trauma is fascinating and not something I will delve into here, but the brain and the body automatically shift gears in an emergency in order to help elicit the fight, flight or freeze response. This is purely human nature and serves people well in a crisis. After the crisis, the brain and the body try to recover. Sometimes this does not happen fully and there are ‘marks’ (biological changes) left on the brain from the trauma that make it difficult to recover. This may come in the form of nightmares, panic attacks, avoiding situations/people/places, re-living the event, depression, anxiety, agitation, changes in sleeping/eating patterns, headaches, stomach trouble, etc. These symptoms do not get better without treatment- that is the bad news. The good news is that there is treatment! A combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and EMDR (see What About EMDR?) can help many people who have been impacted by a traumatic life event.
And finally, many people ask, “What qualifies as a traumatic event?” The answer is that it can be anything from a large scale natural disaster or terrorist act, to something more personal like the death of a loved one, divorce, or a move. It can also be something that happened a long time ago, such as childhood abuse. Often, these things emerge later in life when people are in a place to deal with the past. No matter what the event, if you or someone you know is experiencing difficulty after a traumatic event, make an appointment with a licensed therapist who has training with trauma and EMDR.