What is trauma and how do I know if I am traumatized?

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I have probably heard people use the term “trauma” or say things like “I am traumatized now” or “that was traumatic”  a little too often even though the reality may or may not be the case. It is like when a kid says that he is being bullied only to find out that it is simply a kid who has been teasing him and that kid teases him right back. I don’t want to make light of trauma but I think it is important to know what it is and what it is not.

The first distinction I want to make is between a traumatic event and someone who is traumatized. Someone who has experienced a traumatic event may not necessarily be traumatized and someone who is traumatized may not have directly experienced a traumatic event. As you may be able to imagine, a traumatic event is something, someone, or some situation that would make most people feel intensely unsafe with the potential of severe harm or death. These events can range from supernatural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, fires), acts of violence (e.g., shootings, explosions, verbal threats), or harm to self-integrity (e.g., rape, public humiliation). This may also occur through witnessing such things, learning about these things happening to someone close (e.g., family member, friend), or exposure to stressors that stir up those thoughts and feelings. You can read more thoroughly about trauma-related symptoms and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) here. The amazing reality is that only about 20% of people who experience these traumatic events end up having trauma-related symptoms or simply put “become traumatized” (Source).That means 80% of people are able to process this information in their brains in a healthy way so that they are not experiencing these thoughts and feelings of danger again and again. Someone who is traumatized experiences these horrific feelings and thoughts despite being safe now and the danger has already passed.

One way to explain why some people become traumatized is that their brains are having a difficult time processing their traumatic experience in a healthy way. The right side of your brain contains centers that regulate emotion as well as the fight-or-flight system. When something that feels life threatening occurs, that part of the brain is ignited to help a person deal with the problem by sending chemicals in the body that help provide extra resources to run away, engage the problem, or freeze so that the pain is dampened. The issue occurs when the threat is no longer there but the right side of the brain is still on high alert and being activated when certain stimulus (e.g., images, sounds, environments, people) are presented that feels similar to the threat. That causes people who have been traumatized to feel like danger is all around and sometimes feels like the traumatic event is happening again. How stressful! The irony about all of this is that the brain actually thinks it’s doing the person a favor by keeping him or her on high alert to keep them safe from potential danger.

For example, let’s say that a kid got bit by a big dog when he was at the park last week. Due to the injury, he had to go to the hospital and get stitches on his hand. Signs that this boy was traumatized from this event could be a spike in fear whenever he walks by that same park, hears barking from a dog, or even feels frightened simply by seeing other dogs. The kid may begin experiencing rapid heart rate, feel his muscles tense up, and his stomach hurt. Intrusive memories about that painful time may suddenly show up in his mind and he may have a strong impulse to stay in his room despite the reality that there are no dogs that are going to hurt him now.

Healing trauma requires that encoded experience in the right side of the brain to move over to the left side of the brain where it is able to process that information rationally in a factual format or narrative. When someone is able to think and share about the traumatic event without feeling all of the negative feelings that came with the event, then it shows that the trauma has been resolved in a healthy way.

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I know through personal experience that Eye-Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy was able to help my brain heal in a natural and effective way. My first experience with EMDR was when I was 19-years-old during my time in the Army. I was working as a mental health specialist at Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington state at the time when a psychologist who was newly trained in EMDR therapy pulled me over and asked if I was interested in being her “guinea pig.” I happily agreed given that I was naïve and trusted this colleague. She asked me if there was something that involves a lot of distress or anxiety for meat that time. I told her that there was an older colleague who constantly “tormenting” me and criticized my work because I was a “baby sergeant” despite holding the same rank. Whenever I saw this colleague, I would notice a spike in anxiety and the fear of criticism. After 30 minutes of some basic EMDR therapy, I was healed! I knew this because the next day I saw the same colleague and none of the anxiety resurfaced. The colleague didn’t do anything differently and yet emotionally it no longer bothered me. You can say that I became a believer in EMDR therapy!

There are other forms of therapy such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), Exposure Therapy (usually not recommended by me due to possible re-traumatization), and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) that are evidenced-based practices to help people’s brains heal from trauma. My professional preference is a mixture of EMDR and TF-CBT. Of course the best way to know whether or not you are traumatized is to get a psychological assessment from a mental health professional. Life is too short; no one should have to continue suffering after a traumatic event. If you or someone you know is suffering from trauma related symptoms, please get the support needed to heal and move forward. For more entries like this, please visit me on my blog.

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