What is trauma?

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Special thanks to Shelly Beach and Wanda Sanchez of PTSDperspectives for this article.

What do people mean when they use the word “trauma”? The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines trauma in the following way: Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that are experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that have lasting adverse effects on the individual's functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being. Events and circumstances may include the actual or extreme threat of physical or psychological harm or the withholding of material or relational resources essential to healthy development. These events and circumstances may occur as a single occurrence or repeatedly over time. The individual's experience of these events or circumstances helps to determine whether it is a traumatic event. (http://1.usa.gov/YNghba) A simpler definition is that trauma occurs when any event overwhelms the brain’s ability to cope. A comprehensive definition with accompanying criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Associ 8 events in a systematized manner so that we can process them, access them, and use them to make meaning. But during traumatic events, the right side of the brain that controls sequencing and putting things in a beginning-middle-and-end order shuts down, and experiences are processed primarily by the left side. Because of this, experiences can become encoded or “trapped” in the left side of the brain, and the person continues to experience past events as if they are still happening. People who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often experience repeating thought and have difficulty escaping from patterns of thinking that keep them “trapped” in the patterns of behavior. Sights, sounds, and smells can “trigger” thinking patterns and behavioral responses. For the person with PTSD, flashbacks are distinctively different from memories. A person experiencing a flashback literally re-experiences a past event in the present -- with all the sensations, smells, visual images, and related emotions that became locked away and encoded in their brain during their traumatic event. Unfortunately for some people, traumatic experiences happened repeatedly -- as with repeated sexual, verbal, or physical abuse -- and those multiple experiences become tangled and “unfiled” experiences that are “stuck” in the left side of their brains. Those memories become blocked and replay in seemingly endless patterns and cycles in the minds of those who have experienced trauma. They cannot simply decide to stop thinking about those things or disengage from the symptoms that result from PTSD. Trauma therapy helps individuals address the biology of the brain and re-file experiences in their proper place so that they can be sequenced appropriately and the person who experienced the trauma can be free to address their symptoms. Who is most likely to suffer from PTSD? Many people mistakenly think the term “trauma” applies only to those who’ve experienced military conflict. But, to the contrary, millions of Americans suffer with the effects of trauma, called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. According to the Sidran Institute and other sources • 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced some kind of traumatic event at least once in their lives. That’s 223.4 million people. 9 • An estimated 8% of Americans have PTSD at any given time. • Among people who experience severe trauma, 60-80% will develop PTSD. • An estimated 1 out of 10 women develop PTSD during their lifetime. (www.healmyptsd.org) • Nearly 25% of women newly diagnosed with breast cancer will go on to develop PTSD. (http://bit.ly/XWXXOk) • According to PsycCentral, one in five spinal cord patients will develop PTSD. (http://bit.ly/VenkHL) • The New York Times Reports that increasing numbers of caregivers are struggling with PTSD. (http://nyti.ms/14vQl6z) Who does trauma impact? People who struggle with the symptoms of trauma are everywhere. They are every age, every color, every race, and from every socio-economic background. They sit beside us in the workplace, in our classrooms, at our family reunions, in our churches, and in any environment where we are with people. And often the symptoms of trauma have taken hold of our lives or the lives of people we love, and we have never made the “connection” to the cause. We may have struggled with symptoms for years—fears, depression, addictions, hyper vigilance, obsessive-compulsive behaviors or other cycles of thinking and acting—and never addressed the trauma with an appropriate approach. Unfortunately, people who have suffered with trauma often struggle to find safe places to talk about their feelings. • At home: PTSD sufferers may feel shame because it feels difficult or impossible to break free from cycles of thinking and patterns of behavior. The symptoms of PTSD often include addiction and selfabusive behaviors, which compounds guilt and shame. • At work: PTSD sufferers often feel they must hide their struggles or risk their jobs. • Among friends: PTSD sufferers often feel shame and guilt, choosing to “hide in plain sight” or isolate. 10 • At church: Because people with PTSD find themselves “stuck,” they often feel enormous guilt at church. Faith is supposed to provide the answers to life’s problems, and some Christians infer that if we have not been healed, it is because we have not applied enough faith. The impact of trauma in our world is becoming an increasing priority. In an effort to provide the most effective care possible, many medical communities are turning to trauma-based delivery systems. New evidence regarding links to trauma in almost every facet of life is being made every day. With the growing number of military officer returning home with PTSD, we are beginning to recognize the individual, family, and cultural impact of this growing problem.

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