Wellness: Mental health and emotional trauma

Have you ever been traumatized? Are you living with emotional trauma? There are many that are living with trauma in their lives; whether it be physical trauma or mental trauma…and for many the trauma has been present in their entire life; and for others their trauma is new to them and they are working to overcome it.

Mental trauma, as defined in psychology, is an experience that produces psychological injury or pain. Childhood or adult abuse and neglect, being a child of alcoholism and other drug abuse and addictions, witnessing a horrific event, being in combat situations, difficulties in recovering from serious illness or injury, etc.; are all examples of trauma and traumatic experiences.

Physical trauma; having a broken bone, undergoing surgery, etc., are events that are most usually overcome and are more or less temporary in nature. One has a broken arm for example; the arm is set in a cast, healing takes place, and the person goes on with their life….the scars of these events usually fade quickly.

Mental Trauma, on the other hand, produces emotional scarring that may take some a life time to overcome. Studies have consistently shown us that about 65 percent of individuals who experience trauma are able to return to their normal level of functioning shortly after the event and stay there, with another 25 percent taking a year or two to recover and a minority of people suffering more greatly and struggling for a much longer period of time, or have a delayed reaction to the event; as in the case of one struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The symptoms of psychological trauma are many, but the most common are having nightmares, feeling on edge, having flashbacks of the event, keeping others at a distance or not trusting, and never being able to fully relax.

Other most pronounced symptoms include anxiety, having difficulty functioning at work or in the home environment, having depression, having difficulty forming or maintaining lasting relationships, and self- medicating with alcohol and other drugs.

In order to fully understand and appreciate trauma, one must take a look at what is going on in the brain at the time. An article written by Jennifer Swenton, Psy.D., in Psychology Today magazine, has a most meaningful elaboration of what is going on in ones brain when it comes under stress.

“When something traumatic happens, the brain functions differently. Under normal circumstances the brain encodes whatever it needs to encode, sends it down the pathway, it is processed, stored or disposed of, and life goes on, memories intact. This is a completely different process under stress. Our bodies communicate consistently all day long with all kinds of electrical and chemical impulses. These impulses tell our brain and body what to do…process this, dump that, pay attention here; this doesn’t need to be here, etc. In a traumatic situation your “flight or fight” response gets triggered.

Your body senses danger and sends out red alert signals in the form of hormones. Your bloodstream is swimming with chemical messengers that tell you to “GET OUT NOW!” The primary goal under these circumstances isn’t encoding the memory, but getting you to safety. This is the reason that so many trauma victims have gaps in memory: the attention was focused on getting the body to safety.”

Doctor Sweeton goes on to state, “When the trauma takes place one gets stuck. When you get stuck with the event your amygdala- the primary culprit in the fight or fight response- gets really, really sensitive. This part of the brain screams GET OUT when it feels that you are in danger. Your brain stops processing and focuses all of its energy on getting you away from danger. The memory doesn’t get fully processed and is fragmented in the brain in chunks of implicit and explicit memories. This is why sometimes a smell, the way a person touches you, or even tone of voice can trigger a trauma victim.”

Now, the body cannot tell the difference between physical and emotional danger. This is the reason that you have this flight or fight response to stimuli, whether it is emotional or physical. The brain, the very primal part of the brain involved here, thinks that you are in physical danger, which is why you have the physical symptoms. The body then does exactly what it is suppose to do. It is protecting you.

Traumas experienced in childhood can leave scars that last into adulthood and put a person at risk for a greater number of difficulties. This can be said of all kinds of traumas, to include (but not limited to) accidents, disasters, witnessing violence directed toward others, and the horrific experiences in combat situations; but are especially true for a child experiencing neglect and abuse.

Not all individuals who have experienced childhood abuse and neglect experience difficulties in adulthood. There are those individuals who are resilient, can bounce back and lead normal lives as adults despite the traumas of their childhood. They have seemed to truly adopt the philosophy that “what does not kill you makes you stronger.” Unfortunately there are many that bring their trauma baggage into adulthood.

At the core of an individual’s trauma is fearful thinking and fearful associated feelings. Fear becomes an integrated part of the individual’s life. It is this fear that is addressed in Counseling Therapies, using Rational Behavioral Therapy (RBT) or other best-practices; reality based therapies are usually recommended treatment for trauma; along with trauma survivor group support and friends and family support.

Anti-anxiety or anti-depression medication may be prescribed by a physician as well. Forgetting the events which brought on the trauma may not be possible, but healing is.

If you or loved one or acquaintances are experiencing trauma symptoms, I urge you to get help…from the local Mental Health Clinic, your Physician, a Licensed Counselor, or a local self-help support group.

Let the Healing begin. Until Next Time, Stay Healthy My Friends!