December 4, 2023 Dec 04, 2023 10 min read
Trauma refers to the direct or indirect experience of emotionally disturbing or life-threatening events. Trauma is a risk factor underlying numerous mental health conditions and behavioral symptoms. Research continues to show how trauma fundamentally affects the brain and changes how people relate to themselves and the world around them. If you have experienced trauma in your past, you may struggle with the following:
PTSD is a common mental condition that can develop after experiencing one or more traumatic events. People with PTSD experience a cluster of various symptoms, including trauma flashbacks, nightmares, feelings of emotional numbness, sleep disturbances, hypervigilance, intense anger, relationship problems, and avoiding people or situations reminiscent of the trauma.
Research shows that about 8% of the population experiences PTSD at some point in their life. Many mental health experts now consider CPTSD (complex PTSD) as a legitimate mental health disorder that results from consistent developmental trauma. It’s important for survivors of sexual trauma to address their mental health. Some people wait many years before seeking support. However, unresolved trauma can cause significant mental and physical health consequences. Getting help can prevent certain symptoms from emerging, and it can treat current symptoms that may be causing you distress.
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Depression is one of the most common mental disorders worldwide, and it’s typical for survivors of trauma to experience depression symptoms even years after the trauma occurred. Depression refers to persistent feelings of sadness, irritability, appetite changes, sleep disturbances, concentration problems, and feelings of worthlessness. This condition can range on a scale from mild to severe.
After experiencing trauma, many people experience depression symptoms. It can be hard to focus or take care of yourself. Sometimes, these symptoms naturally reduce over time. But depression can also intensify and significantly impact your functioning and well-being. Approximately 5% of adults experience depression. Depression symptoms, if unresolved, can impact every part of someone’s life. It can make it difficult to stay present in relationships or work, and it can also pose challenges with adhering to basic self-care. Sometimes depression can escalate to self-harm or suicidal ideation.
Trauma can naturally cause people to feel hypervigilant and worried in everyday situations. Everyone experiences anxiety, but when it’s chronic and excessive, it can create problems and exacerbate trauma responses. Anxiety disorders are classified into several different disorders based on the presenting symptoms:
Trauma disrupts your sense of safety in the world. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) refers to a specific condition that entails experiencing heightened anxiety across various situations. Someone with GAD might feel a global sense of anxiety about many circumstances, including their health, work, money, and relationships. Among the types of anxiety disorders, GAD is the most common.
Some people experience panic attacks as a trauma symptom. Panic disorder refers to experiencing recurrent panic attacks and having a pronounced fear of panic attacks happening unexpectedly. This fear can lead you to avoid certain situations where you think a panic attack could occur. For example, you might worry about having a panic attack when you’re at work, so you find yourself missing work on the days you wake up feeling anxious. Over time, this may lead to you losing your job.
Trauma survivors may also find themselves feeling uncomfortable during typical social interactions. Social anxiety disorder refers to excessive worry about being judged by others or navigating various social situations. If you have social anxiety, you may ruminate about past conversations or struggle to believe that people like you. Trauma and social anxiety can go hand-in-hand. If you were traumatized by someone who cared about you, it can make you doubt other people’s loyalty. Some people with social anxiety start to isolate from others, which can create a cycle of feeling lonely.
A specific phobia is a particular worry about a situation, place, or object. Some of the more common phobias include a fear of the dark, a fear of death, or a fear of driving. Sometimes, phobias are directly connected to past trauma. Other times, people with trauma develop more specific fears about the world around them. Phobias range in severity, but when they are moderate or severe, they can prevent people from experiencing life to the fullest. They can also result in you feeling ashamed, frustrated, and emotionally drained.
Unexplained or intense anger is also a common trauma response. Some mental health experts cite anger as a secondary emotion to feeling helpless, embarrassed, afraid, or ashamed.
Both men and women experience anger, but societal messages often make it “safer” for men to express anger outwardly. That said, unresolved anger can lead to both physical and emotional health consequences. If you can’t articulate your needs correctly or you become overly explosive, your anger may cause serious problems in relationships. Anger management can help you understand your triggers and react to them more productively.
Because trauma affects how safe you feel in the world, it’s common for people to isolate themselves from friends or family. It can be scary to “put yourself out there” and risk getting hurt again. You might also not want to feel like you’re a burden to others.
That said, humans are social creatures. Isolation and loneliness are real threats to your emotional well-being. Learning how to find the right support and lean on others is an imperative part of the trauma recovery process.
When trauma happens within a relationship, future relationships can suffer. This is especially true if you were abused or neglected by someone who was supposed to care for you. There can be a profound sense of betrayal (also known as betrayal trauma theory), which can lead to a negative self-image and magnified shame.
As an adult, it can feel challenging to trust others, form new relationships, or enjoy physical intimacy. You may struggle with feeling overly attached and clingy to others. Or, you might feel too guarded and withdrawn because getting close feels scary. Being aware of your patterns can help you slowly change them. It’s important to learn how to set boundaries with yourself and others, and it’s also essential that you are mindful of the components of a healthy relationship.
Eating disorders are among the most fatal mental illnesses, and people with trauma can struggle with these conditions months or years after the incident occurred. There’s a strong correlation between eating disorders and trauma, with some research showing the prevalence is anywhere from 37%-100%.
People sometimes turn to food, exercise, and body image as a way to gain control or cope with what happened to them. Over time, however, an eating disorder emulates its own dissociative trance. The behaviors can become consuming and highly distressing. Eating disorders can lead to numerous health consequences, including malnutrition, heart disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal distress, kidney failure, and premature death.
Like eating disorders, a significantly high percentage of people with substance use disorders report histories of trauma. One study found that, among people receiving substance abuse treatment, more than 70% of patients indicated histories of trauma.
Some people turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate their emotional pain. In the short term, being under the influence provides temporary relief. But the effects are short-lived. In most cases, substance use exacerbates mental health problems and can sometimes cause even more trauma.
Some people self-harm (intentionally cut, burn, or otherwise hurt themselves) to cope with difficult trauma symptoms. Approximately 2-6% self-harm at some point. Self-harm itself doesn’t necessarily make someone suicidal. However, people who attempt suicide often have histories of self-harm.
Trauma can make it seem like there’s no way out. When someone feels suicidal, it’s often because life feels extremely challenging, and they may have lost hope that things can get better. You may have also tried various treatments to improve your situation, but the mindset of life feeling hopeless can be hard to move away from.
Suicidal warning signs are complex in nature, but some of the common red flags include a persistent sense of hopelessness, frequent thoughts about death or dying, apathy about life itself, and consistently considering how you might end your life.
If you’re struggling, it’s imperative to reach out for support. If you have a trusted loved one, talk to them about what’s going on. You can also contact the local helpline or emergency room if you need immediate guidance.
Trauma doesn’t discriminate against whom it impacts. However, girls and young women are more vulnerable to the impacts of sexual abuse. If you’re struggling in the aftermath of a trauma, the first step may be talking to someone- whether that’s a trusted friend, therapist, family member, or teacher.
While there are no specific cures for mental health conditions, it is possible to manage your symptoms and feel better about yourself. Treatment is an individual process, but it may include a combination of individual therapy, psychiatric medication, holistic lifestyle changes, building a healthy support system, mindfulness, and self-therapy exercises. Some recovery may be a trial-and-error- you will find that certain techniques may resonate with you more than others.
In more serious cases, a more intensive, monitored treatment may be necessary. Progress isn’t always linear, but maintaining consistency is important when it comes to taking care of your mental health. As you continue to implement positive coping skills to manage your emotions, your overall well-being will likely improve.
Trauma affects people in profound physical, emotional, and spiritual ways. That’s why it’s considered a risk factor for most mental illnesses. That said, it is possible to recover from trauma-related symptoms and live a more meaningful and fulfilling life. No matter what you’re struggling with, it’s possible to heal.
Trauma is an underlying factor coinciding with numerous mental health conditions and compulsive behaviours. It is impossible to distinguish whether trauma causes such symptoms to occur, but research suggests strong correlations. When receiving treatment, it’s paramount to consider multidisciplinary care that treats both mental health concerns and the trauma itself. Over time, this can reduce trauma responses and, thereby, decrease mental health symptoms. The first step toward healing is being honest with your feelings and taking action toward improving your well-being.
This tool serves as a guide to help you recognize the impact of trauma on your daily life. It provides a checklist of common trauma symptoms, allowing you to identify areas where you may be experiencing significant mental health challenges. It's crucial to note that this is a general assessment tool, not intended for diagnosing mental health conditions. Symptoms may vary over time, so check off any relevant experiences from the past week. Additionally, the tool encourages you to explore coping skills for healing, emphasizing that seeking professional support and trying various strategies can contribute to your journey of recovery. Remember, this is a personal exploration tool, and seeking professional guidance is recommended for a comprehensive understanding of your mental health.
Download the Recognition Framework for Trauma Impact.