Understanding psychological trauma

The word trauma gets thrown around a lot these days. As a trauma therapist, many people come to me “to do trauma work” or “to process past traumas” or “for trauma recovery/healing”.

Broadly speaking, psychological trauma happens when a person witnesses or experiences a negative event that is so overwhelming that they are unable to metabolize or make sense of the experience. Their brain and nervous system cannot cope with this emotional intensity, which can include fear, horror, guilt, shame, etc. People might say they feel “broken”, “devastated”, “damaged”, “stuck”, “flooded”, “numb”.

If not dealt with, over time this unprocessed negative experience can remain in a “frozen” state in the brain, nervous system, and the physical body, months or years after the event. It can cause people to get “triggered” by stimuli like sounds, people, and situations that remind them of the original negative experience. When this happens, they relive the event as if it were happening here and now. This describes some of what we know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Trauma can negatively impact people’s relationships, work, thinking, emotional and physical well being, in some cases causing chronic pain and leading to physical illness. If left untreated, trauma can be debilitating and can drive people to suicide.

Psychological resilience

We all respond to life differently. Not everybody who undergoes a negative life event experiences trauma. This is why some survivors of extreme adversities like war, natural catastrophes, torture, domestic violence, etc. are later able to lead healthy, normal lives and have fulfilling relationships with others and the world at large. Why is this? There are several factors, including that of psychological resilience. People with “hardy personalities” are resilient and can bounce back after a traumatic life event. Others may be lucky enough to have loving and nurturing relationships, which provide emotional support and gradually help them heal. Conversely, research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACEs) tells us that the higher one’s ACE score, the more susceptible one is to mental and physical health problems, which decrease one’s psychological resilience and ability to cope with life stressors. However, there are ways we can build up our psychological resilience so that we are able to withstand adversity and increase our flexibility in responding to unpleasant life situations.

Name it to tame it

Sometimes people are surprised to see a therapist and find out that the source of their anxiety, suicidal ideations, substance abuse, compulsive behaviors and other symptoms is unprocessed trauma. We do not always have the knowledge or language to understand our experiences or name things as they are. People may think they have moved past a difficult life event because after all they survived it, and have since adapted to their current circumstances. Yet they continue to suffer from underlying unease and dysfunctional behavior patterns, never realizing this is psychological trauma until they see a doctor or a mental health professional. Often they are relieved to find out because it allows them to begin to make sense of their symptoms and behavior.

Seek help

So is it trauma or not? Everything is subjective and no two experiences are the same. It is important to see a licensed mental health professional for assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. Some therapists specialize in trauma modalities like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR); Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) and Somatic Experiencing. Like many therapists, I offer a confidential 15-minute free consult where people can discuss what kind of treatment is right for them. It is possible to process and heal from trauma and learn adaptive coping skills and self-care to mitigate the impact of trauma in one’s life.

 Contact me if you are interested in learning more.


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