Trauma is an emotional response that we may have to a terrible and potentially life-threatening event. Trauma can profoundly affect your life in nearly every way, and you may find it difficult to move past it. Despite the far-reaching consequences of these experiences, too often, myths about trauma can prevent you from reaching out to others or getting help.
When you recognize the impact of a traumatic experience and understand that everyone handles it differently, you can start to receive the treatment you need.
Whether you went through symptoms of trauma, or your loved one did, the following are myths that need to be dispelled.
What Does It Mean to Be Traumatized?
We tend to use the term trauma loosely. For example, if you’ve not experienced trauma, you might jokingly use it to reference a problematic situation. The reality is that actual trauma can be crippling in your life.
According to additional information from the American Psychological Association, trauma is a response to an event that we find highly stressful. Traumatic experiences can lead to physical and emotional symptoms. Examples of situations that lead to trauma include rape, natural disaster, accident, or various forms of abuse or structural violence. Any event you find emotionally or physically threatening can lead to trauma, as can anything eliciting an extreme fear response even months after a traumatic event.
When you’re traumatized, you might feel a range of emotions immediately following the event and for weeks, months, or years afterward. If you have ongoing symptoms that don’t get better over time, you may have post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
There are a few primary types of trauma experienced.
Acute trauma or a critical stress reaction results from one dangerous or stressful event.
Chronic trauma occurs with repeated exposure to stressful domestic violence, ongoing sexual abuse, or child abuse. Complex trauma is the third type, appearing as a result of exposure to multiple traumatic situations.
Emotional Trauma Symptoms
Emotional trauma-related symptoms may include:
- A sense of hopelessness
- Problems concentrating
- Self-destructive behavior
It’s not uncommon to have symptoms, including emotional outbursts or flashbacks.
Physical Trauma Symptoms
Trauma-related physical symptoms can include:
- Digestive symptoms
- Feeling jumpy or edgy
- Racing heart
There’s also a term called hyperarousal that can be a common symptom of a traumatic event or traumatic experience. Hyperarousal makes you feel like you’re always on high alert or prepared to encounter danger even if there’s no threat.
Some people who experience trauma develop other mental health issues and severe symptoms along with PTSD, including depression, anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder, dissociative disorders, or substance abuse disorders.
Below, we go into some of the misconceptions about the trauma that people may hold.
- You Know How You Would Have Handled If It Were Your Trauma
If you haven’t personally experienced trauma, or even if you have, you may look at someone else’s situation and feel like you would have handled it differently. That may be true, but the reality is that you don’t know how someone else experiences situations or processes them.
Not everyone who experiences trauma will experience a traumatic stress response. Even if they do have symptoms of PTSD, most will recover, but some will have longer-lasting challenges.
For example, if you experience trauma as a child, you’re more likely to have long-term symptoms. Children don’t have as many coping mechanisms to deal with stress and certainly not trauma.
Being female can put you at greater risk of being the victim of trauma and increase your risk of a trauma response.
Other individual factors that impact how you deal with trauma include having a pre-existing mental health condition or co-occurring disorders, minimal social support, or limited coping strategies.
- People Should “Get Over It” or “Move On” From Their Trauma
Another common misconception about the trauma that we hear is that only weak people are affected by it. There’s a damaging myth that you should be able to just go over it when you experience trauma, and that’s not the reality. Some people are more vulnerable to trauma than others, but none of the vulnerability factors relate to weakness.
You don’t have control over your mental health, just like your physical health can be out of your control.
Often the people you would have otherwise seen as the “strongest” can be most affected by trauma.
People who try to outwardly show strength and end up hiding their feelings or trying to just “move on” can face a much worse situation.
- You Should Be Able to Be Tough and Deal with Your Trauma On Your Own
You wouldn’t deal with a serious medical condition on your own, nor should you do that with trauma or other mental disorders.
Trauma is complex, and you can recover and once again feel safe, but you more than likely need help to get there. One thing we want to emphasize is that there’s no benefit in trying to tough it out on your own. Resources are available and can keep your trauma or PTSD from becoming a life sentence. Working with a mental health professional can be genuinely life-changing if you have a history of trauma.
If your psychological trauma symptoms don’t get better or perhaps even worsen, you may have PTSD. We’ll talk more about the differences between trauma and PTSD below.
Some of the signs you should seek help for your trauma include:
- You’re having problems functioning at work or school
- You’re dealing with depression, anxiety, or extreme fear
- Unable to form relationships
- Experiencing flashbacks, nightmares, or frightening memories
- You find that you’re avoiding things that remind you of the trauma
- You feel numb or emotionally disconnected
- You’re experiencing symptoms of substance use disorders
- Aggressive behavior
There is a wide range of approaches to the effective treatment of trauma and PTSD. Treatment options include behavioral therapy, exposure therapies, and medication. These treatments can help you learn to regulate your emotions, eliminate your continuous fight-or-flight energy, and rebuild relationships with others.
- Trauma Is Reserved for Combat Veterans and Abuse Survivors
We most often associate traumatic stress symptoms with military personnel and veterans, as well as sexual or physical abuse survivors. While these groups of people have disproportionately high rates of PTSD and trauma-related effects, these aren’t the only scenarios where you can experience the symptoms of extreme stress or a disturbing event.
There are so many one-time and ongoing events that cause trauma and extreme emotional reactions. Examples of these include:
- Being involved in an accident or seriously injured
- Continued stress, such as living in a dangerous neighborhood or battling a difficult illness
- Repeated bullying and other similar adverse childhood abuse
- Traumatized children may have experienced neglect. Childhood neglect doesn’t have to include physical abuse but can involve emotional abuse as a form of trauma.
- Surgery or significant medical procedures
- The sudden death of a loved one
- The end of a relationship
- Something humiliating
Even viewing images of a traumatic event, even if you aren’t directly involved, can trigger your trauma response. Indirect trauma response is known as vicarious trauma, and it can profoundly affect your emotional health.
- Trauma and PTSD Are the Same Things
Finally, among the myths about trauma to address is that trauma and PTSD are the same things.
Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event. Almost everyone in the world has likely experienced previous trauma at some point in their life, whether it’s childhood trauma or something you experience in adulthood. Many people heal from trauma and move on, but PTSD is a diagnosable medical condition that occurs when the symptoms and effects of trauma don’t dissipate and may even worsen.
When you develop PTSD, you don’t just experience trauma and the related common responses or common reactions. You have emotional distress and psychological symptoms to the point that it affects your functionality in daily life.
You may experience some type of symptoms of PTSD that can occur within a few weeks of the triggering event, or they can take years to appear. You may also have ongoing physical reactions related to disturbing events or the progression of events. A PTSD diagnosis deeply affects your quality of life, requiring medical advice and mental health services focusing on trauma and trauma-informed care.
The Mental Health Center of San Diego wants anyone dealing with trauma or posttraumatic stress disorder to know that you can recover and you can live a fulfilling life, but you can’t do it on your own. So call us at (858) 258-9883, we’re trauma-informed care specialists who can help you on your road to recovery, no matter the type of trauma experienced in your life.