A traumatic experience can be one of the key factors in the development of psychological distress and psychiatric problems. In the purest sense, trauma involves exposure to a life-threatening experience. Traumatic experience can be of a psychological and/or physical nature. Betrayal by someone on whom we depend for survival (children depending on their parents, for example) can produce consequences similar to those from a more obvious life-threatening trauma like having a gun held to your head in the case of a soldier. Individuals exposed to violations or abuses of power by people or institutions on which they must depend often show traumatic stress symptoms.
By our nature, we create meaning out of the context in which we live, and learn how to behave and survive according to that context. As a result, there is always a strong subjective component in people’s responses to traumatic events. The type and depth of impact from a traumatic event varies from person to person and situation to situation. Some of those factors are age, duration of the incident, intensity, level of threat to life or basic needs, temperament, prior history and it’s effect on subjectivity. Traumatic experiences can be a single incident or chronic, repeated incidents over a period of time.
Traumatic experiences shake the foundations of our beliefs about safety, and shatter our assumptions of trust. Because they are so far outside what we would expect, these events provoke reactions that feel strange and “crazy.” I have had more than one client tell me how relieved they were after I informed them they had a trauma disorder. “I thought you were going to tell me I’m crazy,” they’d said.
It is important to know that even though these reactions are unusual and disturbing, they are typical and expected as they relate to your trauma. It seems to me that having a disturbing reaction as a result of a disturbing experience is pretty reasonable. Developing survival strategies to cope with difficult and unsafe situations simply makes sense. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop a trauma disorder. Problems occur when the survival strategies persist when the unsafe situation no longer exists.
Professional help is recommended if symptoms persist for weeks or months, when they interfere with activities of daily living, or when they are extreme regardless of how long it’s been since the traumatic incident. When symptoms persist for several months without treatment, avoidance can become the best available method to cope with the trauma. This survival strategy interferes with seeking professional help and with accessing social supports. The longer someone postpones seeking help, the more difficult the work will be to resolve the traumatic impacts.
In my experience, many individuals with unresolved and untreated impacts from traumatic experiences become vulnerable to self-medicating as part of their avoidance and denial. Addictions become a real risk for many people who have experienced traumatic events.