Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences.
It does not discriminate and it is pervasive throughout the world. A World Mental Health survey conducted by the World Health Organization found that at least a third of the more than 125,000 people surveyed in 26 different countries had experienced trauma. That number rose to 70% when the group was limited to people experiencing core disorders as defined by the DSM-IV (the classification found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition). But those numbers are just for instances that have been reported; the actual number is probably much, much higher.
While there are no objective criteria to evaluate which events will cause post-trauma symptoms, circumstances typically involve the loss of control, betrayal, abuse of power, helplessness, pain, confusion and/or loss. The event need not rise to the level of war, natural disaster, nor personal assault to affect a person profoundly and alter their experiences. Traumatic situations that cause post-trauma symptoms vary quite dramatically from person to person. Indeed, it is very subjective and it is important to bear in mind that it is defined more by its response than its trigger.
Acute Stress Disorder Vs. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Not every traumatized person develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some people develop some symptoms like those listed above, but they go away after a few weeks. This is called acute stress disorder (ASD).
When the symptoms last more than a month and seriously affect the person’s ability to function, the person may be suffering from PTSD. Some people with PTSD don’t show symptoms for months after the event itself. And some people deal with PTSD symptoms of a traumatic experience for the rest of their life. Symptoms of PTSD can escalate to panic attacks, depression, suicidal thoughts and feelings, drug abuse, feelings of being isolated and not being able to complete daily tasks.
Therapies For Trauma
Individuals experiencing trauma benefit from working with a therapist or therapy that is trauma-focused or trauma-informed. Most trauma-informed therapists will employ a combination of interventions and modalities.
One example is Eye Movement & Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR). Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., is the originator and developer of EMDR, which has been so well researched that it is now recommended as an effective treatment for trauma in the Practice Guidelines of the American Psychiatric Association, and those of the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. Read more about Dr Shapiro here
EMDR aims to reduce symptoms of trauma by changing how your memories are stored in your brain. In a nutshell, an EMDR therapist does this by leading you through a series of bilateral stimulation (i.e. eye movements, tapping, sounds, or with tappers) as you recall traumatic or triggering experiences in small segments, until those memories no longer cause distress.
While originally developed to treat trauma and PTSD, EMDR may also help relieve symptoms of other mental health concerns, especially those intertwined with past trauma.