While starting my private practice, friends often asked me what I am going to specialize in. My idea was putting special focus on treating trauma victims, depressed and anxious clients. The next question surprised and also confused me alike. Many asked: “What do you mean by trauma? What is that?” Turns out, most of them had no idea what falls under the category of psychological trauma.
So here we go. What is trauma? And have I been traumatized?
The Google online dictionary describes a psychological trauma as a deeply distressing or disturbing event.
How we know if we have been traumatized is by our emotional and physical reactions to the specific event. When I was 16 years old my father and I had been in a head collision car accident with another driver. Thankfully none of us had severe physical injuries, however, something changed that day. Lets say, for a couple years I became a terrible passenger. I was the person who would tell you to keep the distance, push my imaginary breaks, and hold on to the side handle whenever I thought there was danger ahead, which was pretty much always.
So what happened here? How did I become this annoying passenger who appeared to be very critical of everyone’s driving. The truth is, I did get hurt in that car accident, maybe not physically but mentally.
Years after I was still fearful driving in a car. Having gone through training in psychotherapy I know now what happened. I experienced a traumatic event, which is something that had me fear for my life, my father’s life, and fear of severe physical injury. Whenever I was exposed to triggers that reminded me consciously or unconsciously of this event, I was right back in the moment of that accident. Triggers can be stimuli like certain sounds, smells, feelings, tastes, pictures, etc. that are reminiscent of the experience.
I have worked on my traumatic event by using EMDR (a trauma treatment), gradual exposure therapy and practicing relaxation skills, which at least allows me now to drive my own car without fear and have almost no emotional outbursts as a co-pilot. Therapy has helped me to process some of the distorted thoughts and feelings that I overgeneralized to situations while driving in a car.
Traumatic events can be anything, starting with an accident, a fight, abuse, loss of someone or just observing something very scary. The severity of the trauma response reaction will depend on our personal genetics, environmental factors and psychological resources. An event that has a lasting effect on one may not have the same on another person.
Typical symptoms of having been traumatized can look different in children and adults. Here is a sample list of possible reactions to traumatic events: sleep difficulties, headaches and other physical pain, feeling isolated from others, flashbacks, changes in sex drive, nightmares, anxiety attacks, “spacing out” (going away in your mind), sadness, dizziness, angry outbursts, uncontrollable crying, memory problems, feeling guilt, having trouble breathing, thoughts of self-harm and more.
Will you need to see a therapist whenever you have experienced a traumatic event? The answer is no. Some reactions are very normal, especially immediately after exposure, and will disappear over time. I would recommend seeing a mental health professional who specializes in this area, like me, when the symptoms interfere with the quality of your daily life.