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TRAUMA: Its Realities and Long-Term Impacts

Vanessa Toledo, Clinical Psychologist

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November 22, 2022

TRAUMA: Its Realities and Long-Term Impacts

Understanding Trauma: Its Realities and Long-Term Impacts

In recent years, the term "trauma" has become increasingly prevalent in everyday conversations and social media. However, there is often confusion about what trauma truly entails and why it demands greater awareness. Trauma is not simply about difficult life experiences; it is a profound psychological and emotional response to life-threatening events that overwhelm an individual's ability to cope.

Defining Trauma

Trauma is defined as exposure to a life-threatening injury or event that overwhelms one's ability to cope. This can include a wide range of experiences such as domestic or sexual violence, childhood abuse, pregnancy loss, combat, car accidents, mass shootings, and physical violence. Notably, trauma does not necessarily involve physical harm; severe verbal abuse, including threats against one's life, can also constitute trauma. While distressing events like breakups or job loss can be extremely challenging and merit professional support, they are not classified as trauma in the clinical sense, despite how they are sometimes portrayed on social media. Moreover, trauma can be categorized as “big T” and “small t” helping to understand the severity of experiences. “Big T” traumas refer to significant, life-threatening events that largely affect the individual’s psychological well-being. Some examples of “big T” traumas are natural disasters, severe physical or sexual abuse, and major accidents. Whereas, “small t” refers to less severe and non life-threatening events that can still have a profound effect on the individual. Examples for “small t” traumas are significant life-changing events such as job loss, divorce or emotional abuse. The major difference between “big T” and “small t” traumas are that “big T” traumas often lead to serious mental health issues such as PTSD, while “small t” traumas may not necessarily lead to PTSD but they will still require therapeutic intervention due to significant distress the individual is experiencing.

Prevalence and Impact of Trauma

The prevalence of trauma is staggering. Approximately 83% of Americans will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime, and around 20% of these individuals will go on to develop Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a severe mental health condition that arises from experiencing or witnessing traumatic events. Risk factors for developing PTSD include the nature and severity of the trauma, the number of traumatic events experienced, and the presence or absence of a supportive social network.

Symptoms and Consequences of PTSD

PTSD manifests through a range of debilitating symptoms such as intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, hypervigilance, avoidance of trauma-related triggers, and intense self-blame. These symptoms can significantly impair an individual's daily functioning and quality of life. PTSD is also associated with exacerbating physical health issues, including chronic pain, migraines, and gastrointestinal problems. Moreover, PTSD can develop years after the initial trauma, making it a chronic and pervasive condition.

The Broader Impact of Trauma

While PTSD is often associated with military veterans, the majority of PTSD cases—about 86%—occur in civilians. Traumas most likely to lead to PTSD include rape and domestic violence, highlighting the widespread and pervasive nature of these issues. This underscores the importance of recognizing and addressing trauma beyond the commonly acknowledged contexts.

Why Awareness Matters

Raising awareness about trauma is crucial for several reasons. First, understanding the true nature of trauma helps to demystify and destigmatize the experiences of those affected. Many individuals may not recognize that their symptoms are related to trauma or may feel ashamed to seek help. Increased awareness can encourage individuals to seek appropriate support and treatment.

Second, greater awareness can lead to better support systems. Social support is a critical factor in mitigating the effects of trauma and aiding recovery. By fostering a more informed and compassionate society, we can create environments where survivors feel understood and supported.

Third, awareness drives the development and implementation of effective interventions. Mental health professionals and organizations can better address the needs of trauma survivors with a deeper understanding of the condition. This includes developing specialized therapies, such as trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which have been proven effective in treating PTSD.

As someone who has worked closely with trauma survivors, I've witnessed firsthand the transformative power of these therapies. One client, a survivor of childhood abuse, found immense relief through EMDR, which helped her process and reframe her traumatic memories. Another client, an earthquake survivor, benefited significantly from ACT, which taught him to accept his painful thoughts and feelings rather than fighting against them, allowing him to live a more fulfilling life.

Suggestions of Effective Therapy Styles

Based on my experience, different therapy styles can be more effective for different individuals depending on their unique needs and circumstances:

1. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): This therapy is highly effective for many trauma survivors because it helps reprocess traumatic memories and reduce their emotional impact. EMDR uses bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements or tapping, to facilitate this reprocessing. It can be particularly beneficial for those who struggle with intrusive memories and flashbacks.

2. Trauma-Focused Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) : TF-CBT is a structured, short-term treatment that addresses the emotional and psychological needs of children and adolescents who have experienced trauma. It combines cognitive-behavioral techniques with trauma-sensitive interventions, making it highly effective in reducing PTSD symptoms in younger populations.

3. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT helps individuals accept their traumatic experiences and associated feelings rather than trying to avoid or suppress them. This approach can be particularly useful for those who feel stuck in their trauma and need help moving forward. By focusing on values and committed action, ACT encourages individuals to live meaningful lives despite their trauma. Long-Term Impacts of Trauma

The long-term impacts of trauma extend beyond the immediate psychological effects. Trauma can lead to enduring changes in the brain and body, affecting an individual's emotional regulation, cognitive functions, and physical health. Chronic trauma exposure can result in complex PTSD, which involves additional symptoms such as emotional diss-regulation, negative self-concept, and difficulties in interpersonal relationships.

Screen Shot 2024-06-28 at 3.53.02 PM.png Trauma survivors often face significant barriers in various aspects of life, including employment, education, and social relationships. The societal cost of untreated trauma is immense, contributing to lost productivity, increased healthcare costs, and ongoing cycles of violence and abuse.

Understanding and addressing trauma is a critical societal issue. By increasing awareness and promoting effective interventions, we can support trauma survivors in their recovery journeys and mitigate the long-term impacts of trauma. Recognizing the profound effects of trauma and providing compassionate support can lead to healthier, more resilient individuals and communities.

At MeTime Healing, we understand the profound impact trauma can have on your life. Our online therapy platform is designed to provide accessible, compassionate, and effective support for trauma survivors. We offer a range of evidence-based therapies, including EMDR, TF-CBT, ACT, and more, delivered by experienced and empathetic therapists. Whether you're dealing with big T or small t trauma, we're here to help you on your journey to healing and recovery.

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