Psychological trauma is sometimes hard to understand. Because of this, many people who have suffered from it do not realize how it affects their lives. More sadly, many parents who have children that have undergone psychological trauma, do not realize the importance of getting them help because they do not realize the damage that has been caused.
They believe that children are resilient and will get over or forget something traumatic that happened to them when they were one, two, three or four yeas old. Depending on the child, the traumatic event and what protective factors were or weren’t available to the child after the event, that child may suffer psychological damage for life.
Psychological trauma is the unique individual experience of an event in which the individual’s ability to integrate his/her emotional experience is overwhelmed or the individual experiences a threat to their life, body or sanity.
A traumatic event creates an overwhelming feeling within a person where they are not able to cope and are left to feel as if they will be killed, seriously injured or psychologically damaged. The person may feel overwhelmed emotionally, cognitively and/or physically. This type of situation is common with abuse, entrapment, helplessness, betrayal, pain, loss and/or confusion.
Trauma is a very broad definition and includes responses to powerful one time events such as natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and crime, deaths, and even surgeries. It can also include responses to repetitive events such as combat, urban violence, concentration camps and abusive relationships.
The key component in trauma is feeling helpless and endangered. No two people will experience the same traumatic event the same. As a matter of fact, what may be traumatic for one person may not be at all traumatic to the next.
For instance, earlier this week I did crisis counseling with four female inmate workers who were out clearing road debris when a man came out of the woods with a machete and chased them back to the van. The man was apprehended, but the four women were brought to me to be evaluated.
Out of the four women, three appeared to be handling the situation relatively well, even able to laugh and joke about the incident while also describing it as terrifying.
One woman however, was obviously more shaken up. She sat nearly stone faced with tears in her eyes, not saying a word during the counseling session. I quickly learned that she was the last woman to make it safely to the van and was the one whose life was most in danger. She also has a history of mental health problems which may make her predisposed to developing signs of trauma which include:
- Shock, denial, or disbelief.
- Anger, irritability, mood swings.
- Guilt, shame, self-blame.
- Feeling sad or hopeless.
- Avoidant behavior
Out of the four women, she is the one I most worry about and the one I will observe closes during the days to come to see how she processes this trauma and to help walk her through it if needed.
That is the interesting part of trauma and why trauma is defined by the experience of the survivor. We can’t say one event will cause trauma and another will not or that one person will be traumatized by this experience while another will not. Trauma is too broad for such simple explanations.
“Big T” versus “Little T”
It’s hard to go through life without being traumatized in some way. Most of us have experienced some type of event that has affected us either consciously or subconsciously. It could be the divorce of our parents, being bullied in school, seeing a pet die when we were young.
Many of us don’t even know we walk around caring these traumas with us or how they affect our lives.
For instance, a man whose favorite pet died when he was five may never like pets for the rest of his life and grow angry and anxious when his kids ask if they can have a pet.
These types of traumas are called “Little Ts” or “Little Traumas”. They do not have the severe impact that “Big Ts” or “Big Traumas” usually have such as flashbacks, avoidant behavior, severe anxiety and nightmares that lead to a diagnosis of PTSD. Still, “Little Ts” can unconsciously disrupt our lives.
Most men I’ve worked with in anger management don’t even realize why they are so angry, why they hit their wives or bully their children. It’s only after some intense introspection that most of them can identify traumatic events in their childhood such as being bullied by their own father, watching their father beat their mother or watching their mother go through abusive relationship with one man after another, that they realize the reason they carry around so much anger.It’s once we deal with the root causes of their anger that they began to truly heal.
I myself as a child watched as my father often abused my mother. I never had any nightmares, flashbacks or anything that would make it a “Big T”. I never felt that my own life was in danger, but I did feel like my mothers’ life was.
Still, one of the affects it had on me was that for many years I thought that’s what love was. That if you loved someone you fought, made up and then fought again. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned I was wrong. For many years, that “Little T” of watching my parents fight had me living in a world where fighting verbally and physically meant love.
A woman I counseled with was claustrophobic and afraid of the dark. She had no ideal why until one session we processed the fact that her older siblings used to play a game where they would lock her in a closet when she was very young. They thought it was funny, but she was tormented. She never viewed that as a traumatic event until years later, sitting across from me crying.
Trauma doesn’t have to be a negative word. Often times the way we respond to trauma, the way it changes us, the way we adapt to a traumatic event, is natural given the coping skills, circumstances and knowledge we have at the time.
The topic of trauma is too broad to cover in one post. I’ve actually been on a radio talk show discussing trauma twice within the last two months and will likely be on a third time because it is such a huge topic.
My bottom line for this post is to help others realize that you don’t have to go off to war or survive some horrific event to suffer from the affects of trauma. Even “Little Ts” can rob us of our full quality of life and “Big Ts” can devastate us.
Once we recognize this, we can change it through self help, the help of loved ones and even professional help if needed and reclaim the joy and full life we deserve.