Trauma, including one-time, multiple, or long-lasting repetitive events, affects everyone differently. Some individuals may clearly display criteria associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but many more individuals will exhibit resilient responses or brief symptoms.
The impact of trauma can be subtle, insidious, or outright destructive. How an event affects an individual depends on many factors.
Sequence of Trauma Reactions
Survivors’ immediate reactions in the aftermath of trauma are quite complicated and are affected by their own experiences, the accessibility of natural supports and healers, their coping and life skills and those of immediate family, and the responses of the larger community in which they live.
Although reactions range in severity, even the most acute responses are natural responses to manage trauma— they are not a sign of psychopathology. Coping styles vary from action oriented to reflective and from emotionally expressive to reticent.
Initial reactions to trauma can include:
Numbness and/or dissociation
Most responses are normal in that they affect most survivors and are socially acceptable, psychologically effective, and self-limited. Indicators of more severe responses include continuous distress without periods of relative calm or rest, severe dissociation symptoms, and intense intrusive recollections that continue despite a return to safety.
Delayed responses to trauma can include:
Fear of recurrence
Anxiety focused on flashbacks
Avoidance of emotions, sensations, or activities associated with the trauma.
Common Experiences and Responses to Trauma
A variety of reactions are often reported and/or observed after trauma. Most survivors exhibit immediate reactions, yet these typically resolve without severe long-term consequences. This is because most trauma survivors are highly resilient and develop appropriate coping strategies, including the use of social support, to deal with the aftermath and effects of trauma. Most recover with time, show minimal distress, and function effectively across major life areas and developmental stages.
The following paragraphs focus on some common reactions across domains (emotional, physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, and developmental) associated with traumatic events.
Emotional reactions to trauma can vary greatly and are significantly influenced by the individual’s history. Beyond the initial emotional reactions during the event, those most likely to surface include anger, fear, sadness, and shame. However, individuals may encounter difficulty in identifying any of these feelings for various reasons. They might lack experience with or prior exposure to emotional expression in their family or community.
They may associate strong feelings with the past trauma, thus believing that emotional expression is too dangerous or will lead to feeling out of control (e.g., a sense of “losing it” or going crazy). Still others might deny that they have any feelings associated with their traumatic experiences and define their reactions as numbness or lack of emotions.
Some trauma survivors have difficulty regulating emotions such as anger, anxiety, sadness, and shame—this is more so when the trauma occurred at a young age (van der Kolk, Roth, Pelcovitz, & Mandel, 1993). In individuals who are older and functioning well prior to the trauma, such emotional dysregulation is usually short lived and represents an immediate reaction to the trauma, rather than an ongoing pattern.
Self-medication—namely, alcohol or substance abuse in the form of prescribed benzodiazepines—is one of the methods that traumatized people use in an attempt to regain emotional control, although ultimately it causes even further emotional dysregulation (e.g., substance-induced changes in affect during and after use). Other efforts toward emotional regulation can include engagement in high-risk or self-injurious behaviors, disordered eating, compulsive behaviors such as gambling or overworking, and repression or denial of emotions; however, not all behaviors associated with self-regulation are considered negative. In fact, some individuals find creative, healthy, and industrious ways to manage strong effects generated by trauma, such as through renewed commitment to physical activity or by creating an organization to support survivors of a particular trauma.
Traumatic stress tends to evoke two emotional extremes: feeling either too much (overwhelmed) or too little (numb) emotion. Residential Treatment can help the individual find the optimal level of emotion and assist him or her with appropriately experiencing and regulating difficult emotions. In treatment, the goal is to help clients learn to regulate their emotions without the use of substances or other unsafe behavior. This will likely require learning new coping skills and how to tolerate distressing emotions; some individuals may benefit from mindfulness practices, cognitive restructuring, and trauma-specific desensitization approaches, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing most often referred to as EMDR.
Diagnostic criteria for PTSD place considerable emphasis on psychological symptoms, but some people who have experienced traumatic stress may present initially with physical symptoms. Thus, primary care may be the first and only door through which these individuals seek assistance for trauma-related symptoms.
Moreover, there is a significant connection between trauma, including adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and chronic health conditions. Common physical disorders and symptoms include somatic complaints; sleep disturbances; gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, neurological, musculoskeletal, respiratory, and dermatological disorders; urological problems; and substance use disorders.
Hyperarousal and Sleep Disturbances
A common symptom that arises from traumatic experiences is hyperarousal (also called hypervigilance). Hyperarousal is the body’s way of remaining prepared. It is characterized by sleep disturbances, muscle tension, and a lower threshold for startle responses and can persist years after trauma occurs. It is also one of the primary diagnostic criteria for PTSD.
Hyperarousal is a consequence of biological changes initiated by trauma. Although it serves as a means of self-protection after trauma, it can be detrimental. Hyperarousal can interfere with an individual’s ability to take the necessary time to assess and appropriately respond to specific input, such as loud noises or sudden movements. Sometimes, hyperarousal can produce overreactions to situations perceived as dangerous when, in fact, the circumstances are safe.
Along with hyperarousal, sleep disturbances are very common in individuals who have experienced trauma. They can come in the form of early awakening, restless sleep, difficulty falling asleep, and nightmares. Sleep disturbances are most persistent among individuals who have trauma-related stress; the disturbances sometimes remain resistant to intervention long after other traumatic stress symptoms have been successfully treated. Numerous strategies are available beyond medication, including good sleep hygiene practices, cognitive rehearsals of nightmares, relaxation strategies, and nutrition.
Traumatic experiences can affect and alter cognitions. From the outset, trauma challenges the just-world or core life assumptions that help individuals navigate daily life (Janoff-Bulman, 1992). For example, it would be difficult to leave the house in the morning if you believed that the world was not safe, that all people are dangerous, or that life holds no promise.
Belief that one’s efforts and intentions can protect oneself from bad things makes it less likely for an individual to perceive personal vulnerability. However, traumatic events—particularly if they are unexpected—can challenge such beliefs.
Cognitions and Trauma
The following examples reflect some of the types of cognitive or thought-process changes that can occur in response to traumatic stress.
Cognitive errors: Misinterpreting a current situation as dangerous because it resembles, even remotely, a previous trauma.
Excessive or inappropriate guilt: Attempting to make sense cognitively and gain control over a traumatic experience by assuming responsibility or possessing survivor’s guilt, because others who experienced the same trauma did not survive.
Trauma-induced hallucinations or delusions: Experiencing hallucinations and delusions that, although they are biological in origin, contain cognitions that are congruent with trauma content.
Intrusive thoughts and memories: Experiencing, without warning or desire, thoughts and memories associated with the trauma. These intrusive thoughts and memories can easily trigger strong emotional and behavioral reactions, as if the trauma was recurring in the present. The intrusive thoughts and memories can come rapidly, referred to as flooding, and can be disruptive at the time of their occurrence. If an individual experiences a trigger, he or she may have an increase in intrusive thoughts and memories for a while.
For instance, individuals who inadvertently are retraumatized due to program or clinical practices may have a surge of intrusive thoughts of past trauma, thus making it difficult for them to discern what is happening now versus what happened then. Whenever counseling focuses on trauma, it is likely that the client will experience some intrusive thoughts and memories. It is important to develop coping strategies before, as much as possible, and during the delivery of trauma-informed and trauma-specific treatment.
Many factors contribute to cognitive patterns prior to, during, and after a trauma. Adopting Beck and colleagues’ cognitive triad model, trauma can alter three main cognitive patterns: thoughts about self, the world (others/environment), and the future. To clarify, trauma can lead individuals to see themselves as incompetent or damaged, to see others and the world as unsafe and unpredictable, and to see the future as hopeless—believing that personal suffering will continue, or negative outcomes will preside for the foreseeable future. Subsequently, this set of cognitions can greatly influence an individuals’ belief in their ability to use internal resources and external support effectively.
An integral part of experiencing trauma is feeling different from others, whether or not the trauma was an individual or group experience. Traumatic experiences typically feel surreal and challenge the necessity and value of mundane activities of daily life. Survivors often believe that others will not fully understand their experiences, and they may think that sharing their feelings, thoughts, and reactions related to the trauma will fall short of expectations. However horrid the trauma may be, the experience of the trauma is typically profound.
The type of trauma can dictate how an individual feels different or believes that they are different from others. Traumas that generate shame will often lead survivors to feel more alienated from others—believing that they are “damaged goods.” When individuals believe that their experiences are unique and incomprehensible, they are more likely to seek support, if they seek support at all, only with others who have experienced a similar trauma.
Triggers and Flashbacks
A trigger is a stimulus that sets off a memory of a trauma or a specific portion of a traumatic experience. Imagine you were trapped briefly in a car after an accident. Then, several years lter, you were unable to unlatch a lock after using a restroom stall; you might have begun to feel a surge of panic reminiscent of the accident, even though there were other avenues of escape from the stall.
Some triggers can be identified and anticipated easily, but many are subtle and inconspicuous, often surprising the individual or catching him or her off guard. In treatment, it is important to help clients identify potential triggers, draw a connection between strong emotional reactions and triggers, and develop coping strategies to manage those moments when a trigger occurs. A trigger is any sensory reminder of the traumatic event: a noise, smell, temperature, other physical sensation, or visual scene.
Triggers can generalize to any characteristic, no matter how remote, that resembles or represents a previous trauma, such as revisiting the location where the trauma occurred, being alone, having your children reach the same age that you were when you experienced the trauma, seeing the same breed of dog that bit you, or hearing loud voices. Triggers are often associated with the time of day, season, holiday, or anniversary of the event.
A flashback is re-experiencing a previous traumatic experience as if it were actually happening in that moment. It includes reactions that often resemble the client’s reactions during the trauma. Flashback experiences are very brief and typically last only a few seconds, but the emotional aftereffects linger for hours or longer. Flashbacks are commonly initiated by a trigger, but not necessarily. Sometimes, they occur out of the blue.
Other times, specific physical states increase a person’s vulnerability to re-experiencing a trauma, (e.g., fatigue, high stress levels). Flashbacks can feel like a brief movie scene that intrudes on the client. For example, hearing a car backfire on a hot, sunny day may be enough to cause a veteran to respond as if he or she were back on military patrol. Other ways people reexperience trauma, besides flashbacks, are via nightmares and intrusive thoughts of the trauma.
Traumatic stress reactions vary widely; often, people engage in behaviors to manage the aftereffects, the intensity of emotions, or the distressing aspects of the traumatic experience. Some people reduce tension or stress through avoidant, self-medicating (e.g., alcohol abuse), compulsive (e.g., overeating), impulsive (e.g., high-risk behaviors), and/or self-injurious behaviors. Others may try to gain control over their experiences by being aggressive or subconsciously reenacting aspects of the trauma.
Behavioral reactions are also the consequences of, or learned from, traumatic experiences. For example, some people act like they can’t control their current environment, thus failing to take action or make decisions long after the trauma (learned helplessness). Other associate elements of the trauma with current activities, such as by reacting to an intimate moment in a significant relationship as dangerous or unsafe years after a date rape. The following sections discuss behavioral consequences of trauma and traumatic stress reactions.
Self-harm and Self-destructive Behaviors
Self-harm is any type of intentionally self-inflicted harm, regardless of the severity of injury or whether suicide is intended. Often, self-harm is an attempt to cope with emotional or physical distress that seems overwhelming or to cope with a profound sense of dissociation or being trapped, helpless, and “damaged” (Herman, 1997; Santa Mina & Gallop, 1998). Self-harm is associated with past childhood sexual abuse and other forms of trauma as well as substance abuse. Thus, addressing self-harm requires attention to the client’s reasons for self-harm. More than likely, the individual needs help recognizing and coping with emotional or physical distress in manageable amounts and ways. There are strong associations between eating disorders, self-harm, and substance abuse (Claes & Vandereycken, 2007).
It is important to distinguish self-harm that is suicidal from self-harm that is not suicidal and to assess and manage both of these very serious dangers carefully. Self-harm can be a way of getting attention or manipulating others, but most often it is not. Self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse, restrictive or binge eating, reckless automobile driving, or high-risk impulsive behavior are different from self-harming behaviors but are also seen in clients with a history of trauma. Self-destructive behaviors differ from self-harming behaviors in that there may be no immediate negative impact of the behavior on the individual; they differ from suicidal behavior in that there is no intent to cause death in the short term.
Consumption of Substances
Substance use often is initiated or increased after trauma. Clients in early recovery— especially those who develop PTSD or have it reactivated—have a higher relapse risk if they experience a trauma. In the first 2 months after September 11, 2001, more than a quarter of New Yorker residents who smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol, or used marijuana (about 265,000 people) increased their consumption.
The increases continued 6 months after the attacks (Vlahov, Galea, Ahern, Resnick, & Kilpatrick, 2004). A study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA, Office of Applied Studies, 2002) used National Survey on Drug Use and Health data to compare the first three quarters of 2001 with the last quarter and reported an increase in the prevalence rate for alcohol use among people 18 or older in the New York metropolitan area during the fourth quarter.
Interviews with New York City residents who were current or former cocaine or heroin users indicated that many who had been clean for 6 months or less relapsed after September 11, 2001. Others, who lost their income and could no longer support their habit, enrolled in methadone programs (Weiss et al., 2002).
Substance use and abuse in trauma survivors can be a way to self-medicate and thereby avoid or displace difficult emotions associated with traumatic experiences. When the substances are withdrawn, the survivor may use other behaviors to self-soothe, self-medicate, or avoid emotions. As likely, emotions can appear after abstinence in the form of anxiety and depression.
Avoidance often coincides with anxiety and the promotion of anxiety symptoms. Individuals begin to avoid people, places, or situations to alleviate unpleasant emotions, memories, or circumstances. Initially, the avoidance works, but over time, anxiety increases and the perception that the situation is unbearable or dangerous increases as well, leading to a greater need to avoid.
Avoidance can be adaptive, but it is also a behavioral pattern that reinforces perceived danger without testing its validity, and it typically leads to greater problems across major life areas (e.g., avoiding emotionally oriented conversations in an intimate relationship).
For many individuals who have traumatic stress reactions, avoidance is commonplace. A person may drive 5 miles longer to avoid the road where he or she had an accident. Avoidance can come in many forms. When people can’t tolerate strong effects associated with traumatic memories, they avoid, project, deny, or distort their trauma-related emotional and cognitive experiences. A key ingredient in trauma recovery is learning to manage triggers, memories, and emotions without avoidance.