What is trauma and do I have it?

Updated: Jul 19

Trauma is the result of stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless in a perceived dangerous world. Trauma can leave you struggling with upsetting emotions, memories, and anxiety that won’t go away. It can also leave you feeling numb, disconnected, and unable to trust other people.

Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and isolated can result in trauma, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the objective circumstances that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.


Trauma can be caused by:

  • One-time events, such as an accident, injury, or a violent attack, especially if it was unexpected or happened in childhood.

  • Ongoing, relentless stress, such as living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, battling a life-threatening illness, or experiencing traumatic events that occur repeatedly, such as bullying, domestic violence, or childhood neglect.

  • Commonly overlooked causes, the sudden death of someone close, the breakup of a significant relationship, or a humiliating or deeply disappointing experience, especially if someone was deliberately cruel.

Coping with the trauma of a natural or manmade disaster can present unique challenges—even if you weren’t directly involved in the event. In fact, while it’s highly unlikely any of us will ever be the direct victims of a terrorist attack, plane crash, or mass shooting, for example, we’re all regularly bombarded by horrific images on social media and news sources of those people who have been. Viewing these images over and over can overwhelm your nervous system and create traumatic stress. Whatever the cause of your trauma, and whether it happened years ago or yesterday, you can make healing changes and move on with your life.


Childhood trauma and the risk of future trauma

While traumatic events can happen to anyone, you’re more likely to be traumatized by an event if you’re already under a heavy stress load, have recently suffered a series of losses, or have been traumatized before—especially if the earlier trauma occurred in childhood. Childhood trauma can result from anything that disrupts a child’s sense of safety, including:

  • An unstable or unsafe environment

  • Separation from a parent

  • Serious illness

  • Intrusive medical procedures

  • Sexual, physical, or verbal abuse

  • Domestic violence

  • Neglect

  • Being teased as a child

  • Having an overly critical parent

  • Living in a high-conflict family

  • Experiencing a lot of unpredictability

  • Moving a lot as a kid

  • Having an unsupportive parent

  • Losing a loved one or a pet

  • Having a parent who expects perfection

Experiencing trauma in childhood can result in a severe and long-lasting effect. When childhood trauma is not resolved, a sense of fear and helplessness carries over into adulthood, setting the stage for further trauma.

Examples of Traumatic Events in Childhood

Possible Impacts in Adulthood

Frequent moves

Difficulty building and maintaining relationships

Being teased by peers

Fear of rejection and social anxiety

Overly critical parent

Difficulty tolerating feedback from others

People close to you leave

Fear of abandonment,

Parent expects perfections

Irrational fear of making mistakes

Living in a high-conflict family

Conflict avoidance, difficulty expressing your needs effectively

Symptoms of trauma

We all react to trauma in different ways, experiencing a wide range of physical and emotional reactions. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to think, feel, or respond, so don’t judge your own reactions or those of other people. Your responses are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL events.

Emotional & psychological symptoms:

  • Shock, denial, or disbelief

  • Confusion, difficulty concentrating

  • Anger, irritability, mood swings

  • Anxiety and fear

  • Guilt, shame, self-blame

  • Withdrawing from others

  • Feeling sad or hopeless

  • Feeling disconnected or numb

Physical symptoms:

  • Insomnia or nightmares

  • Fatigue

  • Being startled easily

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Racing heartbeat

  • Edginess and agitation

  • Aches and pains

  • Muscle tension

Healing from trauma

For some trauma symptoms can last a few days to a few months, gradually fading as you process the unsettling event. But even when you’re feeling better, you may be troubled from time to time by painful memories or emotions—especially in response to triggers such as an anniversary of the event or something that reminds you of the trauma.

If your trauma symptoms don’t ease up—or if they become even worse—and you find that you’re unable to move on from the event for a prolonged period of time, you may be experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While trauma is a normal response to a disturbing event, it becomes PTSD when your nervous system gets “stuck” and you remain in a feeling of shock, unable to make sense of what happened or process your emotions.


If you would like to heal from your trauma, please click here or call (630) 601-3460 to schedule a free consultation call with our staff of trained trauma specialists.


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