What Is pSYCHOLOGICAL Trauma?
Psychological trauma is defined as exposure to an event or series or events that involve actual or perceived threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity, and/or that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. Exposure to a trauma can be direct (e.g., experiencing a sexual assault), witnessed (e.g., witnessing a car accident), indirect (e.g., learning about a traumatic event that happened to a close family member, friend, or other loved one), or repeated and indirect (e.g., crime scene investigators who are repeatedly exposed to gruesome or violent deaths). Trauma can be a one-time event (e.g., a car accident, single episode of sexual assault, witnessing the near-drowning of a loved one) or ongoing (e.g., being exposed to ongoing interpersonal violence, growing up in a violent and dangerous neighborhood, experiencing ongoing discrimination and oppression related to one’s race, gender, or sexual orientation).
WHAT CAUSES PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAUMA?
Trauma can be caused by a variety of different factors. Below are some common situations that can cause psychological trauma. It is important to keep in mind that not everyone who experiences one of these situations will develop a traumatic reaction, and that there are other types of trauma that may not be included on this list.
- Physical abuse/assault: deliberate use of physical force with the potential to cause physical harm. Types of physical abuse/assault include hitting, punching, slapping, kicking, scratching, biting, etc.
- Sexual abuse/assault: any unwanted sexual activity, including unwanted touching, groping, kissing, penetration, etc. Sexual abuse/assault also refers to any type of sexual activity that occurs when a person is incapacitated or otherwise unable to give consent (e.g., in the event of a person being asleep or inebriated due to alcohol). Sexual abuse/assault occurs to people of all demographics and lifestyles, although tend to be more common among people with less social power (e.g., children, women, people with disabilities) over whom a perpetrator is attempting to exert control.
- Domestic violence/Interpersonal violence: physical, sexual, or emotional abuse that occurs within the home and/or an intimate relationship. The abuse may be directed at the perpetrator’s children, spouse, partner, or parent. Domestic violence happens within families of all ethnic backgrounds and between both heterosexual and LGBTQ+ couples.
- Stalking: a pattern of behavior that creates fear in the victim. This can include following a person, repeatedly calling, texting, or emailing, or harassing online. The majority of victims are stalked by someone they know.
- Emotional abuse: verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, isolation, or other actions that are used to diminish a person’s dignity or self-worth.
- Accidents: unintentional incidents that often cause injury.
- Medical trauma: adverse psychological reactions a person has to pain or invasive medical procedures related to an injury or serious illness.
- Systematic oppression/discrimination: institutionalized mistreatment of a group of people based on their social identity, including discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, etc.
- Community violence: aggression that occurs within a person’s neighborhood or immediate surrounding community. People who grow up in communities with extensive violence may remain hypervigilant even after they leave that community.
- War zone/refugee trauma: includes exposure to war, political violence, and/or torture, and may involve a person being displaced from their home as a result. In addition to the trauma of experiencing/witnessing violence and needing to leave one’s home, this type of trauma may be exacerbated by the discrimination that a person may experience within the host country or region.
WHAT ARE Common Reactions to Trauma?
Reactions to trauma are highly subjective and no two people have the exact same response. Your reaction to trauma is based on a combination of your past experiences (including experiences with other traumas), individual biology, current coping mechanisms, and social factors (including how others respond to the specific trauma that you experienced). Some common reactions include:
- Feelings of revenge
- Hypervigilence (feeling very alert to any danger that could be around you)
- Exaggerated startle response (feeling anxious or jumping at loud noises)
- Flashbacks (feeling like you are going through the trauma again)
- Avoidance of situations that remind you of the original trauma
Sometimes reactions to trauma may be immediate or occur very soon after the traumatic event. At other times, the reactions may be delayed or the person may become aware of them weeks, months, or even years later. This is especially likely if the trauma is ongoing, because a person who is in a chronically traumatic situation may be so focused on getting through the situation that they are not able to notice or understand that their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are related to the trauma.
HOW DOES TRAUMA IMPACT BRAIN FUNCTIONING?
When a traumatic event happens, the brain sends information out to a network of structures to signal that something threatening is happening, and this then allows your body to react automatically in order to survive. Sometimes this network can cause trauma survivors to act in ways that they did not think they would or that they do not understand. Many trauma survivors (or even the professionals who are trained to help them) do not understand the way that the brain reacts to trauma, which can cause both the survivor and others to “blame the victim” for what happened and for how they responded. Some reactions can include:
- Fight, flight or freeze (“tonic immobility”) response
- Difficulty thinking rationally (because the body is using its resources to survive)
- Temporary blocking of physical or emotional pain (some people show few emotions or speak in a monotone voice after a trauma)
- Difficulty remembering the trauma, only remembering “bits and pieces” or having “fuzzy” memories
What should I Do If I Experience a Trauma?
- Your safety is of primary importance. If you are not there already, get to a safe place. This can include going to your dorm room/apartment, a friend’s house, your car, the police station, a hospital/medical clinic, etc. If you are not currently in immediate danger, do whatever you need to do in order to feel safer. This can include locking your doors, wrapping yourself in a blanket, calling someone who can be supportive, etc.
- If the trauma you experience resulted in physical injuries, consider getting medical attention. You can have a friend, family member, or victims’ advocate accompany you. (See “What Should I Do If I Experience a Sexual Assault, Episode of Interpersonal Violence, or Stalking?” for additional information.)
- If the trauma you experienced involved a crime or violation of the Student Code of Conduct, consider reporting the crime to the police or the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities. You can have a friend, family member, or victims’ advocate accompany you.
- Take time to take care of yourself. It can be tempting to try to push the trauma out of your mind and pretend that it didn’t happen. While it can be helpful to find ways of distracting yourself in the short term, it can become problematic if trying to avoid thinking about the trauma becomes your main coping mechanism. Engage in activities that you enjoy or that make you feel better, even if for brief amounts of time. This can include engaging in an enjoyable activity, getting coffee with a friend, etc.
- Consider getting professional psychological assistance. Even when a survivor has friends and family who are supportive of them, talking with a professional who is trained in the treatment of trauma can help to facilitate healing. Speaking with a professional who is trained in the treatment of trauma can help to provide additional perspectives on why you are having specific reactions, especially if those reactions are confusing or upsetting.
What SHOULD I Do If Someone I Know Experiences a Trauma?
When someone you know experiences a trauma, it is common to feel shocked, confused, angry, worried, helpless, and unsure of what to do. While every episode of trauma is unique, many people who experience trauma report that the responses they receive from others significantly impacted their healing process. Below are guidelines to assist you in supporting someone who has experienced a trauma.
- Believe them. Certain traumas that people experience can be difficult to comprehend, particularly if you have not experienced something like this personally. However, survivors of trauma are often acutely sensitive to indications that others do not believe them. This can cause them to shut down and avoid seeking treatment, which in turn can intensify the symptoms of trauma.
- Avoid asking questions about the actual trauma. This can be difficult, especially if we are not sure what to say or do. However, asking a lot of questions can cause someone to feel that they have to re-live the trauma. Allow the person to talk about the trauma if they want to, but allow them to do it at their own pace.
- Ask the trauma survivor what they need at this moment. Asking the survivor what they need shows them that you care, and also allows them to have some control over the situation.
- Listen, or simply sit quietly. People who experience trauma may want to talk about their experience, in which case it is often most helpful to provide validation and support. Even when survivors of trauma don’t want to talk about their experience, they often report that it is helpful to just be with someone. Don’t feel that you have to come up with something to say in these situations; it can be helpful for a trauma survivor just to know that you are there for them.
- Offer referrals, but avoid telling trauma survivors what they “should” do. Trauma survivors often report that one of the most difficult aspects of the trauma was feeling powerless. In these situations, survivors often need to reestablish control over their lives, which includes making their own decisions (about seeking treatment, reporting, getting academic assistance, etc.). However, if you are concerned that a person is in immediate danger of harming themselves or someone else, please contact 911 or Counseling Services’ 24-hour hotline for additional assistance 805.756.2511.
- Become more knowledgeable about trauma and traumatic stress. This can include reading books, article, or websites, or consulting with a professional. Knowing more about what the survivor is going through might allow you to feel more confident in providing support to them. Counseling Services is available to consult with parents, friends, partners, roommates, etc. on these issues.
- Take care of yourself and seek out your own support. Providing support to someone you care about who has experienced a traumatic event can be draining. It is important to make sure that you are getting your own physical and emotional needs met in order to best assist the survivor.