In 2018, the National Audit Office estimated that there were 20,000 major trauma cases in the UK a year. Emotional or psychological trauma is a damaging response to a distressing event that may result in feelings of hopelessness, increased stress, anxiety and depression.
Traumatic events can occur at any point in a person’s life and often significantly impairs their mental or physical wellbeing.
Trauma is a product of varying experiences, whether on a single or ongoing basis, which leaves its victims feeling disconnected from society, hypo or hyper arousal and untrusting of others. Trauma may increase your vulnerability to developing mental health problems. Victims of trauma describe it as being imposed with a life sentence. It can have detrimental long-term effects way after the event has occurred.
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According to the American Psychological Association (2004), most people experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. Reactions to trauma differ amongst people. However, as a collective in society, we are guilty of singularly attaching negative connotations to trauma. This may stem as a result of a lack of awareness into the positive ways trauma can completely alter an individual’s behaviour and mindset.
Some effects of trauma are not as visible and may take a while to manifest. But it is undeniable that the brain’s defence mechanisms that develop due to the experience of traumatic events can act as a protective facilitator for survival. When left untreated, the detrimental effects of trauma can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Those who suffer from PTSD often engage in what is referred to as self-preservation behaviour. Self-preservation behaviour is the natural tendency to avoid/prevent harmful situations in order to ensure survival. It is a selfless act common amongst all humans but more prominent in those suffering from PTSD.
Defence mechanisms built up as a result of trauma can have positive consequences in reducing anxiety. Whilst it is true that trauma can negatively impair future behaviour. It can also increase an individual’s chances of survival by ensuring they avoid fearful and stress-provoking situations. In the human body, this is known as the fight or flight response, which is triggered by an emotional reactivity (e.g. fear) to a stressor.
In biological terms, when a threat is perceived and assessed by the hypothalamus, this activates the Sympathetic sphere of the Autonomic Nervous System. The adrenal medulla releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol which are responsible for preparing the body for a fight or flight response. Some of the physiological responses include increased heart rate to facilitate increased blood flow around the body and dilation of pupils to ensure heightened visual accuracy. Emotional regulation and reactivity to the threat also promotes survival.
Perception is everything
How we perceive things impacts our future behaviour
Trauma itself is a negative experience that can lead to positive consequences. As previously stated, it’s important to change the way we talk about trauma, by highlighting its by-product on behaviour, this in turn reduces the despair associated with it. It’s vital to inspire those who have experienced trauma by accentuating the personal growth that can occur as a result of it.
Positive psychology adopted a novel approach which focuses on the ways people can recuperate from trauma. This approach favours psychological flexibility over psychological rigidity, an openness to differing outcomes and experiences.
Calhoun and Tedeschi (1998) coined the term ‘Post-traumatic growth’ (PTG), this occurs when individuals emotionally, socially and physically benefit from their traumatic experiences.
As a consequence of PTG, victims of trauma experience an increase in the quality of their relationships, a strengthened sense of belonging and integration into society, an increased appreciation for life and the motivation to accomplish many things.
They may also develop a deeper value for the sanctity of life, creative and spiritual growth, increase in compassion and altruism and an excitement for their future endeavours.
PTG is not about the dismissal, avoidance or suppression of the traumatic event or the plethora or emotions you feel.
It is about accepting that whilst you did not have control over the events that occurred, you do have control over your perceptions and how you respond to them. It is a part of you that can significantly contribute to you evolving as a person. With the right mindset, it can lead to the development of a stronger self-esteem, self-worth and self-love.
PTG manifests in the recognition that despite the occurrence of life-threatening experiences, humans have a remarkable ability to adapt, survive, become stronger and consequently use their experience to help others.
However, in order to achieve PTG, healing is the first step. You need time to heal from the effects and emotions associated with your traumatic experience, perhaps through therapy or other efficacious means. Trust in the healing process as it can allow you find fulfilment and inner strength. Only after that can you truly assess its meaning in your life and witness its magnitude in promoting change.
Once these negative emotions start to fade, once you are no longer suffering extremely negative emotions related to the trauma, then you can truly start to experience a positive, productive and healthy growth.
Finally, it is evident that the effects of trauma can be serviceable as you face future adversities in life. It affirms your resilience in overcoming adversities. To simply put it, as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche first exclaimed in 1888, “what doesn't kill me, makes me stronger.”
If you can survive this, you can survive anything life throws your way.
Words of Encouragement
Now to sum it up with some words of encouragement. Memories of traumatic experiences are believed to naturally diminish overtime.
The beauty of the human brain lies in its ability to digest and adapt to difficult experiences with time. There is no straightforward way to heal from a traumatic experience.
But it is paramount to be kind to yourself, whatever you’re feeling as a result of your trauma is completely common and natural. Whilst this is definitely easier said than done, it is important to acknowledge that it’s possible to find meaning through traumatic experiences.
Your life has purpose beyond these experiences. They do not define your future. There is strength in knowing you’ve overcome what life has thrown at you. Celebrate your achievements and bravery.
Be optimistic. Rid yourself from feelings of helplessness and lack of hope. You will have good and bad days but always be proud of your progress. You are stronger than you think.
Don’t avoid or dismiss your feelings, these are temporary coping mechanisms. Instead, focus on emotional acceptance. Healing takes time but be kind and patient with yourself.
Find your new sense of purpose. Immerse yourself in creative outlets. You are not defined by your traumatic experiences. You are not built to break, but rather you will gain stability and growth in the face of your adversities.
The Hidden Effects of Trauma
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