This article (Comprehending, managing and healing psychological trauma) was first published in the NewTimes Rwanda. Psychological trauma is a type of harm to the mind that occurs as a result of a brutally distressing event. Trauma is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds a person’s ability to cope, or integrate the emotions involved with that experience. A traumatic event involves one’s experience, or repeating events of being overwhelmed that can be precipitated in weeks, years, or even decades as the person struggles to cope with the immediate circumstances, eventually leading to serious, long-term negative consequences.
Some events which may cause psychological trauma are one-time events, such as the death of your loved ones, acts of violence such as an armed robbery, war or terrorism, Interpersonal violence such as rape, child abuse, or suicide of a family member or friend, involvement in a serious vehicle or workplace accident, injury or natural disasters such as bushfire, earthquake or floods . Ongoing, relentless stress, such as living in a crime-ridden neighbourhood or battling a life-threatening illness. There are also some commonly overlooked causes, such as surgeries, the sudden death of someone close(death of family member, lover, friend, teacher,..), the breakup of a significant relationship(divorce), a humiliating or deeply disappointing experience, parental abandonment, moving to a new location or witnessing a death.
All of these events can lead to trauma if they happened unexpectedly, repeatedly, if a person was unprepared for them, if a person felt powerless to prevent them, if someone was intentionally cruel, if they happened in childhood.
Everyone’s reaction to these traumatic events is different, but most people who experience a potentially traumatic event will recover well with the help of family and friends and will not experience any long-term problems. If people develop problems, they may appear directly after the traumatic event or they may not emerge until much later.
People who experience traumatic events may often have certain symptoms or difficulties as a result. A lot of people have strong emotional or physical reactions following experience of a traumatic event. For most people, these reactions subside over few days or weeks. For other people, the symptoms may last longer and be more severe. The severity of these symptoms will depend on a number of different factors, such as the trauma involved or the emotional support received from others, previous and current life stress, personality, and coping resources.
Symptoms of psychological trauma are physical symptoms such as fatigue, shock, pain, disturbed sleep and physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches and nausea.
Cognitive symptoms such as poor concentration and memories of the event, nightmares, confusion and visual images of the event.
Behavioural symptoms like isolation, loss of interest in normal activities and avoidance of places or activities that are reminders of the event. Emotional symptoms such as depression, constant or regular anxiety and fear, anger and irritability, intense feelings of guilt or shame, panic, numbness and feeling sad or hopeless.
The symptoms of trauma typically last from a few days to a few months, progressively fading as people process the unsettling event. But even when a person is feeling better, He/She may be troubled from time to time by painful memories or emotions especially in response to triggers such as an anniversary of the event or something that reminds him/her of the trauma.
Managing traumatic stress
There are numerous things which can help a person to restore his/her emotional stability after a traumatic event or situation.
Avoid isolation: Following a traumatic event, a person may want to withdraw from others, but isolation only makes things worse. Connecting to others face to face will help a person heal. It’s better to make an effort to maintain one’s relationships and avoid spending too much time alone.
Make new friends: If a person lives alone or far from family and friends, it’s important to reach out and make new friends. Take a class or join a club to meet people with similar interests, connect to an alumni association, or reach out to neighbors or work colleagues.
Join a support group for trauma survivors. Being with others who are facing the same problems can help reduce one’s sense of isolation and hearing how others cope can help inspire them in their own recovery.
Ask for support: While a person doesn’t have to talk about the trauma itself, it is important for him/her to have someone to share his/her feelings with face to face, someone who will listen attentively without judging him/her. Turn to a trusted family member, friend or counselor.
Volunteer: Volunteering can be a great way to challenge the sense of helplessness that often accompanies trauma. It reminds one’s strengths and reclaim his/her sense of power by helping others.
Take care of your health: Having a healthy body can increase one’s ability to cope with the stress of trauma. Make time to practise relaxation. By reducing stresses, a person can try some relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises. Schedule time for activities that bring joy such as favourite hobbies like listening to music or gardening. This will help the body and nervous system to settle and readjust.
Avoid alcohol and drugs: Their use can worsen a person’s trauma symptoms and increase feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation.
Get plenty of sleep: After a traumatic experience, worry or fear may disturb one’s sleep patterns. But a lack of quality sleep can exacerbate his/her trauma symptoms and make it harder to maintain emotional balance. A person can sleep and get up at the same time each day and aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night.
How is psychological trauma treated?
The majority of people who experience a traumatic event will not require treatment. Most will work through their anxiety with support from close friends and families. However, for some people the response to the trauma can be debilitating and treatment from a trained mental health professional will be needed to help the person to recover.
A condition known as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occasionally occur after someone experience a life-threatening event or witness a death. PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder that affects stress hormones and changes the body’s response to stress. People with this disorder require strong social support and therapist or counsellor.
Treatments for a severe trauma response include trauma-focused psychological interventions. These focus on providing education, stress management techniques, and helping the person to confront feared situations and distressing memories.
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5) Wolf EJ, Lunney CA, Miller MW, et al. The dissociative subtype of PTSD: a replication and extension. Depress Anxiety. 2012;29:679–88. (PubMed)
Writer: Olivier UWISHEMA, a medical student at KTU Medical school in Turkey.